Why Ukraine Is Winning

Ukraine’s success illuminates a strategy that has allowed a smaller state to—so far—outlast a larger and much more powerful one.

Ukrainian serviceman walking away from the camera
Aris Messinis / AFP / Getty

About the author: Phillips Payson O’Brien is a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II.

Battles reveal more than they decide. Battles in which the outcome is truly up for grabs are rare, and battles that prove decisive in achieving a political goal are rarer still. Instead, battles demonstrate how effectively combatants planned, prepared, and executed before the fighting began. The result of a battle exposes not only how well matched the sides are but also how the war might unfold in the future. In that sense, the outcome of the Battle of Kyiv was never in doubt. Russia’s and Ukraine’s preparations for the fight essentially preordained the result. But the Battle of Kyiv has revealed a great deal about why Ukraine has done so much better in the war than many analysts predicted.

How and why Ukrainian forces outperformed expectations is perhaps the most important story of this war. A close look at Ukraine’s successes illuminates a strategy that has allowed a smaller state to—so far—outlast a larger and much more powerful one. Call it the “Ukrainian way of war.”

The Ukrainian way of war is a coherent, intelligent, and well-conceived strategy to fight the Russians, one well calibrated to take advantage of specific Russian weaknesses. It has allowed the Ukrainians to maintain mobility, helped force the Russians into static positions for long periods by fouling up their logistics, opened up the Russians to high losses from attrition, and, in the Battle of Kyiv, led to a victory that has completely recast the political endgame of the Russian invasion. The original maximalist Russian attempt to seize all of Ukraine has been drastically scaled back to a far more limited effort aimed at seizing territory in the east and south of the country.

The Ukrainian way of war has a few foundational elements that we have seen in operation around Kyiv and across the country. They are:

  1. Contesting air supremacy over the area of battle;
  2. Denying Russia control of cities, complicating the Russian military’s communications and logistics;
  3. Allowing Russian forces to get strung out along roads in difficult-to-support columns; and
  4. Attacking those columns from all sides.

Denying the Russians air superiority is the foundation of Ukrainian success. Contesting control of the skies allows Ukrainian forces to maneuver while making Russian forces nervous that they could be subject to Ukrainian air assault. The Ukrainians were never going to take air supremacy for themselves—the Russian air force is too large and Russian forces are well provided with antiair systems—but the Ukrainian plan has made it difficult for Russian airpower to patrol over areas of battle. Ukrainian forces prevented Russia from winning control of Ukraine’s airspace by combining a range of systems, including a small number of highly effective MiG fixed-wing aircraft, advanced antiair systems, and a plethora of handheld antiair weapons, such as Stinger missiles. Russian aircraft can and do bomb Ukrainian positions, but these missions seem very much to be of the in-and-out variety, and don’t involve the continual exercise of airpower.

As the Ukrainians have thus maintained mobility for their forces, they have turned their cities into fortresses and roadblocks, complicating Russian logistics and communications. In a detailed announcement about the Ukrainian victory in the Battle of Kyiv, the country’s ministry of defense noted that the capital was “largely saved by the heroic fighters in Chernihiv and Sumy Regions.” These two cities sit astride the main road systems running from the northeast into Kyiv, and both cities withstood Russian attempts to take them early in the campaign. By holding these cities, and almost all others close to the borders of Russia and Belarus, the Ukrainians have not only forced Russian troops to contemplate street-by-street fighting but also made it impossible for Russia to move troops by rail into the Ukrainian heartland. Russia can still move troops by road, but having to avoid Ukrainian-controlled cities forces its troops to take longer and trickier routes. The cities that Russian forces bypassed on their way to Kyiv can also be used to launch attacks behind Russian lines.

Having complicated Russian logistics efforts, the Ukrainians then allowed the Russian forces that had maneuvered around their cities to get strung out along roads as they advanced. The Russians made their situation worse by invading during the muddy season, confining them to narrow paved roadways and further limiting their ability to move. With their enemies in such a vulnerable position, the Ukrainians then launched attacks on the long Russian columns. The attacks took a number of different forms, including airpower (most famously the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones), special forces, long-range artillery, and even large conventional formations. The Ukrainians stretched Russian personnel so thinly that they sometimes failed to defend the columns themselves.

The casualties caused by Ukraine’s harassing attacks hampered Russian attempts to build up enough forces to assault Kyiv. Though the Russians tried to advance on three different road systems, from Sumy, Chernihiv, and the northwest, Ukrainian resistance ensured that they never built up enough force to surround, let alone assault, Kyiv. All three lines of attack have now been shut down, and Russian forces are in retreat.

Instead of assaulting heavy Russian formations of large tanks and artillery directly, the Ukrainians used light, maneuverable forces to take advantage of Russian vulnerabilities and achieve victory. Using handheld weapons operated by small groups, the Ukrainians have regularly disabled Russian tanks and trucks. This has not only weakened the Russian forces in the field but also kept their logistics lines stretched, limiting Russian access to the fuel and ammunition required to keep up a constant attack. (The number of Russian vehicles that have been abandoned intact but without fuel is particularly striking.)

In using light forces this way, the Ukrainians have shown that even in a conventional war between states—as opposed to an insurgency—a smaller force can engage the conventional forces of a larger and more technologically advanced enemy and fight them to a standstill. The Ukrainians have also reminded everyone that the American military, with its lavish logistical support and ability to dominate the air war and the electronic battlefield, is unusual. The Russian military is not some smaller, less-efficient version of the U.S. military. It is a significantly less advanced and less capable force that struggles to undertake many of the operations that the U.S. handles with relative ease. The Ukrainians did not make the mistake of overestimating the Russians, and were able to deal a huge blow to Russian power.

Ukraine, however, has not yet won the war. With their defeat in the Battle of Kyiv, the Russians have started to concentrate in the east and south of Ukraine, hoping to set up a defensive perimeter that the Ukrainians will have to attack if they hope to regain lost territory. The Ukrainian way of war will have to adapt. The Ukrainians, having witnessed the Russian failures in heavy assault, may decide to avoid making the same mistakes and instead continue their light, attritional warfare. This will probably not result in a swift end to the war, but it offers the possibility of draining Russian military and political will, allowing Ukraine to achieve many of its aims in negotiations. The Ukrainian way of war could yet achieve what once seemed all but impossible: victory.