A lightning attack after massing forces is how Putin began his war a year ago. But every day after that has seen the surprises going the other way, with successful counter attacks and battlefield innovation by the Ukrainian military revealing underlying Russian weaknesses.
Ukraine’s military have been impressively creative and innovative in ways the Russian military and mercenaries like its Wagner Group can’t match – and in ways that should also embarrass Western militaries like our own here in Australia.
The Ukrainians have used ‘crowd sourced’ information on where Russian forces are to attack them. They have adopted Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system to move critical information around fast and enable rapid, precision strikes on Russian supply lines. And they have also applied systems like drones rapidly and effectively, without the culture of denial around these that still has conventional Western militaries talking loudly about the traditions of war and tanks and soldiers on the ground as ‘the ultimate expression of a nation’s will’. War will do that – break outmoded assumptions and fast track innovation that peacetime defence and military leaders oppose because these would disrupt business as usual plans and expenditure.
Cherished weapon systems have proven highly vulnerable to Ukrainian innovation – whether Russian tanks, attack helicopters, fighter jets and even Russia’s heavily armed Black Sea flagship, the Moskva. And formerly unknown weapons like the US-made HIMARS rocket system, the Javelin and NLAW antitank missiles and Turkish Bayraktar drones have shown the dominance of new, Western-sourced military technology in the right hands.
We’ll see more of this ingenuity and creativity from the Ukrainians this year and more of the only effective Russian tactic so far: massed waves of badly trained and equipped conscripts that die in large numbers trying to take small chunks of Ukrainian territory.
But the undercurrent that will determine how the war goes in 2023 is all about production and resupply – for both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries.
For Ukraine, it’s about two things: getting hold of advanced strike weapons like longer range missiles and fighters able to strike Russian supply depots and forces massing behind the lines. And shifting away from the Soviet-era weapons and vehicles that make up the bulk of the Ukrainian military’s equipment. Cobbling together parts and replacements from other European nations with ex-Soviet equipment is a game with diminishing returns, and manufacturing parts that would normally be sourced from Russian supplies is tricky re-engineering that’s hard to do in any big way.
This is a huge challenge for all the nations supporting Ukraine, because all of NATO, including the US, have what we now know are real limitations on how much military equipment and critical supplies like ammunition their defence industries can produce. And whatever they supply to Ukraine out of their own militaries’ stock has to be replaced. But the ‘upside’ for these donor militaries is that they are seeing their weapons tested in Ukraine and they are able to replace older systems with new, while also building greater production capacity. That’s also good news for stronger military deterrence of other conflicts – like China and Taiwan in our part of the world.
For Russia, the problem of re-equipping and supply of troops in combat is much worse. Russia’s defence industry has turned out to be much more limited and less successful than expected after over a decade of modernisation under Putin. It looks like a lot of defence cash found its way into other pockets – and perhaps got spent on things like superyachts, dachas and London real estate instead of on Armata tanks, Kaliber missiles and armed drones.
Putin’s big speech to the Russian people recently promised them he would expand high tech and other military production and meet his soldiers’ needs. The fact he had to promise to do this in the future was really him admitting Russia’s defence ministry and defence industry has failed to do this in the war so far.
That’s unlikely to change without a lot more help from Russian partners like North Korea, Iran – and China in particular – in 2023. Just last week, there was a public spat between the head of the thuggish Wagner mercenary group and the Russian military over ‘ammo hunger’ – with Prigozhin, its head, saying that his fighters were being starved of supplies by the military. The truth is that both parts of Putin’s war machine are similarly hungry for supplies that Russia’s sanction-damaged economy can’t produce.
Iran is willing to sell Russia drones and missiles, and maybe even start production in Russia. North Korea is willing to sell Putin artillery and other ammunition that Russian troops are using up faster than Russia can make it. These are marginal sources of support that can supplement Russian capacity but not change the war.
Beijing is the ‘swing state’ here. It’s already happy to deepen its broad economic relationship with Russia and take advantage of the low prices that Russia can demand for energy and natural resources. And US intelligence and other open-source analysis is showing us that Chinese companies are also comfortable selling Putin systems and equipment that have commercial uses but which can also be turned to military ones. Like computer chips and machine tools.
The next step for Chinese support, though, is a big one: Beijing allowing Chinese companies to supply lethal military systems to Putin. Drones that can be easily armed might be the first Chinese things we see on or near the frontlines.
Unfortunately, it’s easier than it should be to imagine Chinese government spokespeople like Wang Yi going further than their familiar propaganda of fake peace plans and blaming the US for Putin’s war. It’s credible to see Beijing moving to justify direct military supplies to Russia by claiming they have to, to balance growing Western support for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people.
If this happens as 2023 unfolds, we will no longer be able to avoid recognising that Cold War 2.0 has begun, with all the disturbing political, economic and strategic implications that flow from it. That would mean a nasty dose of cold water and reality for our government and its desired ‘calm and constructive’ relationship with the regime in Beijing.
So, 2023 is the year of re-equipping and resupply in Ukraine. But here in Australia and in every other democracy that doesn’t want to be dictated to by aggressive authoritarians like those we see in power now in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang, it’s about how the world works and how we each live our lives.
This article was first published by SkyNews.com.au on 28 February 2023