Analysis: How Russia, Ukraine’s militaries stack up after two years of war

Ukraine is outgunned by Russia, but plans to increase drone production as the war drags on into a third year.

Ukrainian servicemen carry an American Mk19 automatic grenade launcher during a military exercise, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv region, Ukraine September 27, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Ukrainian servicemen carry a US Mk19 automatic grenade launcher during a military exercise [File: Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

Ukraine has been fighting Russia for two years to liberate its lands and drive Russia back – but supply, tactics and the flat terrain have meant that the much-vaunted Ukrainian counteroffensive of last year has produced few tangible results.

In the wide-open agricultural land of southern Ukraine, there is not much in the way of cover for an attacking force.

Russia had months to prepare its defences, and built them in depth.

Row after row of trenches, anti-tank obstacles, ditches and reinforced bunkers have formed a barrier, often kilometres deep, effectively containing Ukrainian forces as they have repeatedly tried to break through into the open country beyond, with little success.

The counteroffensive has bogged down into slow, attritional warfare, as Russia’s strategy of making Ukraine pay for every metre it tries to take is showing signs of succeeding.

The quality of Russia’s soldiers may be questionable, but they are still able to slow down Ukrainian advances, protected in fortified dugouts, along with the help of surveillance drones that stop Ukraine’s military from springing surprise attacks on them.

Even so, a mixture of new and old weaponry has changed the dynamics of the modern battlefield and the war fought in Ukraine.

Some new tactics are being developed and successful weapons systems have been brought into play as old ones, such as the tank, have been kept on.

Yet despite all the 21st-century innovations, the battlefields of southern Ukraine are starting to take on an eerie World War I dynamic. A general from a century ago would have no problem understanding the brutal slog of this conflict.

Drones, drones and more drones

Drones have been integral to both sides of this war.

Russia was very late to adopt their use and paid the price as attempts by its military to surprise Ukraine were dashed, with mass artillery used to destroy Russian armoured and infantry units.

Small Ukrainian drones were used to drop grenades onto Russian positions, demoralising the troops stuck in trenches and foxholes.

Ukrainian artillery used them to spot for batteries that could quickly adjust fire in real time, catching Russian troops and tanks in the open as they tried to advance across flat, featureless fields.

Moscow’s forces have, over time, applied the same lessons and turned the tables. It is now Ukrainian units that get caught advancing only to be destroyed by Russian artillery strikes.

The rivals have both realised the value not just of surveillance drones, but also of longer-range drones that can be used to strike valuable targets deep behind enemy lines.

Russia has used hundreds of Iranian-imported Shahed-136 drones as cheap cruise missiles.

While slow flying, they serve to exhaust Ukrainian air defences, depleting Ukrainian missile inventories as a combination of drone, cruise and ballistic missile attacks steadily erode Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.

Ukraine has learned the lesson that plenty of cheap, effective, armed drones are useful in an industrial-level war and a good way to offset a weaker air force.

Ukraine plans mass production of drones that can destroy targets up to 1,000km (620 miles) away, theoretically bringing Moscow and St Petersburg into range. More importantly, marshalling yards, port facilities, train depots and barracks would now all potentially come under fire, further complicating Russian logistical challenges in supplying its forces on the front lines.

To give an idea of the reliance on drones, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said that in 2023 alone, domestic drone production rose to 300,000 drones, and this didn’t include foreign donations.

The target this year is to make over a million drones, with at least half the components locally made, in an effort to offset waning United States support for Ukraine.

Industry is key

Regardless of who wins the US election, backing for Ukraine has eased as domestic concerns and other wars, such as Israel’s campaign in Gaza, soak up US support and resources.

Ukraine is not getting the military aid it desperately needs as Russia puts its economy on a light war footing, now allocating 6.5 percent of its total budget to replacing its significant losses on the battlefield.

One estimate, published this month by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank, says Russia can now produce 125 tanks per month, more than enough to replace those destroyed in recent fighting.

European members of NATO have been increasingly relied on to make up any potential US shortfall in military aid.

Boosting Ukrainian defence manufacturing in drones and artillery ammunition is now considered a national priority.

The brutal arithmetic shows Ukraine needs an extra 240,000 shells a month to even keep pace with Russia.

As most of the fighting is being conducted at long range, artillery is key to both sides.

Russia’s industry has significantly ramped up production of artillery shells and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), together with large imports of North Korean artillery ammunition and ballistic missiles.

Russia is now able to fire five shells for every Ukrainian one. Desperate Ukrainian defenders in some areas are now down to firing a few rounds a day, just to stave off defeat.

Hard lessons learned

The world’s militaries have been watching the conflict unfold and have had to take several hard lessons onboard.

Prewar estimates for artillery production were woefully small and the Ukrainian conflict shows just how much industrial power one needs when fighting an equivalent army or larger.

Prewar stockpiles of missiles are also extremely low.

Most land-attack missiles were leftovers from the Cold War and would mostly have been nuclear tipped, a few hundred sufficing. It’s now clear that thousands would be needed, which means that low-cost, quickly manufactured missiles are key parts of any arsenal.

So too is a layered air-defence system, again reliant on plentiful amounts of cheap missiles, whose production can be quickly scaled up. The same goes for cruise missiles.

The likes of the Storm Shadow missile – with a range of more than 250km (155 miles) – are extremely effective but are expensive and take a long time to build. Cheap alternatives are needed.

The idea of the tank has made a comeback.

Pre-invasion, many militaries were steadily getting rid of their tank inventories. But experience now shows that the tank, properly protected and part of a combined-arms assault, still has great uses on the battlefield and remains a formidable weapon.

Back to drones, which have infused themselves at every level of the battlefield. Serious force multipliers, they can help any military leverage what equipment and weapons it has. One Ukrainian soldier recently noted, in an interview with Politico, that the accuracy of artillery units increased by 250 percent when paired with drones.

Source: Al Jazeera