Unexpected Ukrainian resistance continues to thwart Russia's initial plans for quick, decisive victories

As Ukrainian forces fight a late-summer counterattack to wrest the southern province of Kherson from Russian control, Russian President Vladimir Putin is learning a lesson that many political leaders have learned before: War is often much longer and costlier than anticipated.

In the six months since Russia launched its assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Putin and his military leaders have faced unexpected resistance from Ukrainian forces.

That’s been the case in the southern province of Kherson, where Ukrainian forces launched a counterattack on Aug. 28, 2022. Oleksiy Arestovych, a Ukrainian senior presidential adviser, described the offensive as a “slow operation to grind the enemy.”

Indeed, there appears no end in sight.

As a career U.S. special forces officer with combat and operational deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Africa and South America, I conducted field research on the 2008 and 2014 wars in Georgia and Ukraine.

In my view, Russia’s initial strategy that projected a rapid advance into Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv – and a quick capitulation of Ukrainian forces – has not happened because of poor planning, even worse execution and stiff Ukrainian resistance.

In fact, many thought Kyiv would fall within months of the initial invasion. But Russian military leaders were forced in March 2022 to pull all of their forces from the Kyiv region.

The Ukrainian counterattacks near Kyiv also enabled them to regain significant territory around Kharkiv, a region in the northeast section of Ukraine and the third most populous in the country.

A shift in battle tactics

As wars drag on – as they often do – they go through different phases. The war in Ukraine has been no different.

The opening weeks of the Russian assault on Ukraine was largely a war of maneuver, in which a military uses movement to keep an enemy off balance by fighting when and where it held an advantage.

It became clear that in a war of maneuver, the Ukrainians held a slight edge despite the overwhelming size of the Russian military as compared with Ukraine’s.

Russia’s 2022 military budget, for instance, is US$45.8 billion, about 10 times the size of Ukraine’s $4.7 billion.

More staggering is Russia’s advantage in active personnel – 900,000 to 196,000 – and in armored vehicles – 15,857 to 3,309.

But maneuver warfare requires a well-trained and well-led fighting force to execute synchronized movements.

Over the past six years, with the help of Western allies, Ukraine built a well-trained and well-led fighting force capable of executing synchronized combat manuevers.

As a result, Ukraine defended where it had to – as in Kyiv – and gave up terrain where it had little choice but to retreat, such as Donetsk and the Luhansk regions in the industrialized southeastern part of Ukraine.

After its poor performance in the opening days, Russia’s military leaders learned that they lacked a fighting force capable of winning a war of maneuver and shifted to a war of attrition.

In such wars, troop and equipment movement is limited and instead involves assembling soldiers and military equipment in a relatively fixed location to destroy enemy forces and weapons.

In these types of wars, the goal is to weaken the enemy over time. The fighting is characterized by large artillery barrages and slow advances that are reminiscent of World War I, in which both sides were dug into trenches and unable to advance their forces.

This style of warfare favors Russia’s only strength: overwhelming fighting capacity, supported by massive numbers of troops.

Ukrainian resistance and urban combat

Ukrainian volunteers played a critical role in the defense of the nation in 2014 when they flocked to the Donbas region to fight the Russian assault.

In the opening stage of this latest Russian assault, the volunteers played a similiar role in the defense of Kyiv.

Tens of thousands of civilians grabbed rifles and any other weapons they could find – including captured Russian weapons – to help win the battle for their nation’s capital.