Hold, Build, and Strike: A Vision for Rebuilding Ukraine’s Advantage in 2024

This winter, Ukraine’s military is visibly running on fumes, as recent reporting shows M109 Paladin artillery outside Bakhmut receiving only smoke shells for ammunition. When we were last there in November, shell hunger was widespread along the front, and the situation has only gotten worse. Following months of hard fighting, Ukraine’s offensive in 2023 proved a missed opportunity. The current situation is also not sustainable long term. It is clear Ukraine and the West need a new strategic vision. This means planning beyond the next six months or the next offensive operation. While the current state of the war has been described as a stalemate, spurring an animated debate over what that means, Russia holds material, industrial, and manpower advantages in 2024, along with the initiative. However, with tailored Western support, Ukraine could hold against Russian forces this year and rebuild the necessary advantage to conduct large-scale offensive operations in 2025, recreating another opportunity to deal Russia a battlefield defeat. Conversely, without major adjustments, or if Western support falters, the current path holds a high risk of exhaustion over time and Ukraine being forced to negotiate with Moscow from a position of weakness.

Currently, Ukraine is focused on reconstitution and digging in to defend against continued Russian attacks. Western supplies of artillery ammunition have diminished significantly, leading to shell hunger across the front. After spending several months on the offensive, Ukraine lacks enough artillery ammunition and combat-effective units to go back on the offensive any time soon. Russian forces have seized the initiative along stretches of the front, but they too have struggled to make progress. Although Ukraine’s summer offensive failed to achieve its minimum goals, Russia’s winter offensive last year, and lackluster attacks this fall, also failed to achieve a breakthrough. The year 2023 ended with Russia taking marginally more territory than Ukraine, but it is still far from its official goal of seizing the entire Donbas. Territorial control is one measure of progress toward one’s objectives, but the balance of attrition, capacity for reconstitution, defense industrial mobilization, and the ability to employ force effectively at scale are more important determinants of long-term success. This is why what happens in 2024 is likely to determine the future trajectory of the war.

Uncertainty over Western military and economic assistance means Ukraine needs to further husband its resources and make hard decisions in 2024. Yet despite this gloomy reality, with Western support Ukraine can regenerate combat power and possibly retake the advantage in 2025. If this year is used wisely, core problems are addressed, and the right lessons are applied from the 2023 offensive, Ukraine can take another shot at inflicting a major defeat on Russian forces. However, this demands a new strategy, premised on three central elements: hold, build, and strike. Holding will require a well-prepared defense, consolidating, and rationalizing the Ukrainian armed forces’ diverse park of equipment. Building focuses on reconstituting force quality, training, and expanding defense industrial capacity. Finally, the strike element will degrade Russian advantages and create challenges for Russian forces far behind the front lines, as Ukraine works on rebuilding its capacity to resume offensive operations. Ideally, Ukraine can absorb Russian offensives while minimizing casualties and position itself to retake the advantage over time.

A Better Vision

The strategic context in 2024 is starkly different from that of 2023. Kyiv is unlikely to have the artillery ammunition, manpower, or equipment for another strategic offensive. Conversely, Russia will be materially advantaged in 2024, and Russian spending on national defense, at 10.8 trillion rubles, is a substantial increase over previous years, bringing it officially to 6 percent of gross domestic product (various estimates put the real figure at 8 percent). This may not be enough to offer Moscow a decisive edge on the battlefield, but Russia has made a structural shift in the economy toward significantly increased spending on national defense, converting energy export revenue into defense industrial mobilization. No less important, in 2023, Russia was able to replace its losses and generate additional combat power over time. This included managing to recruit contract soldiers for new formations (not just mobilizing soldiers). Russian forces may experience similar difficulties in overcoming Ukraine’s defenses in 2024 as they did in 2023, but Russian advantages will begin to mount over the course of this year and the next.

This is why the strategy should begin with a hold to hedge against Russian offensives this year, and relative advantages in materiel. This consists of, first, building a more fortified defense-in-depth, which will make it easier to defend the nearly 1,000-kilometer front line, allowing Ukraine to rotate forces, free up its best units, and reduce the ammunition required to defend. Ukraine has started to dig in, but these efforts are nascent when compared to the defense-in-depth fortified positions established by Russian forces. Russia has dedicated engineering brigades that construct and improve fortifications, whereas in the Ukrainian military, defenses are the responsibility of each maneuver brigade. Stronger defenses, including underground bunkers and tunnels, will also compensate for Russia’s advantage in artillery and glide bombs. This will also require the right policies in place, since defenses have to be coordinated with regional authorities, property issues must be addressed, and so forth. This may be surprising, but in Ukraine, farming and business activity carries on close to the front, as two of us observed during our field research.

Holding is about not just positional defense, but also consolidation. This year can be used to consolidate and rationalize the force. With Western support and transfer of industrial capacity like 3D printing machines, Ukraine can increasingly maintain and produce new components for Western kit. Ukraine has a combination of military– and volunteer-run repair and upgrade facilities involved in helping to maintain the force. However, Ukraine received a diverse arsenal of equipment from Western countries, with 14 different types of artillery as just one example. In 2023, this diversity was further increased with Western tanks (Leopard, Challenger, and Abrams variants), infantry fighting vehicles, various types of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and so on. This makes for a logistical and maintenance nightmare, which reduces the amount of equipment that is serviceable at any one time. Given the critical role played by private charities like Come Back Alive and the Prytula Foundation, greater cooperation between them and Western governments and defense companies would help keep Western equipment serviceable.

Second, Ukraine will have to revisit its policies on mobilization and recruitment to address long-standing issues in the structure and quality of its forces. This is currently under debate, but time is of the essence, and it is slipping away. So far, Ukraine’s lawmakers have rejected a proposal to mobilize 450,000 to 500,000 men. What’s clear is that Kyiv will have to consider not just the numbers being mobilized, but the average age, to restore force quality. The Ukrainian military will struggle to conduct offensive operations if the average age continues to climb well into the 40s. Some of the older mobilized soldiers are in poor physical shape and have health issues that limit their ability to fight. Brigades may appear to have large rosters, but many of the soldiers in practice can’t effectively conduct assaults or perform other combat-related functions, limiting their offensive potential. Policies also need to address sustainable rotation, so that personnel can expect to be taken off the line. Ideally, Ukrainian brigades will have a rotation of battalions on the line, in reserve, and being formed. Most important, the system needs to preserve an experienced core of soldiers and junior leaders in every unit as the basis of new formations and training efforts.

Third, working with Western countries, Ukraine can scale up and reform existing training programs, restoring combat effectiveness to its forces. This means expanding local training efforts, revising Western programs, combining training materials, and looking for ways to address the growing deficit of professional military education for officers and junior leaders. These programs need to include not just the tactical requirements of Ukraine’s combat operations, but also the ability to operate as units, and staff training for the brigades. Although Ukrainian servicemen and officers have significant combat experience, they often lack training in the fundamentals, which becomes a greater problem as they swiftly get promoted to replace combat losses. Increased horizontal connections between the Ukrainian and U.S. militaries at the brigade level and below would help ameliorate these issues as well. Company, battalion, and brigade commanders and their staffs cannot be properly trained in a short period of time, which further necessitates looking to 2025 for Ukraine’s next strategic offensive.

As in most wars, the burden of this war falls heavily on the infantry. Infantry mans trenches in defense regardless of the weather, and they suffer the highest rate of attrition. Although ammunition and equipment were a constraint, Ukraine’s summer offensive culminated due to attrition among its infantry forces. This led to commanders forming assault groups piecemeal this fall from soldiers with different specialties, such as artillerymen, to continue offensive operations. A larger pool of trained infantry is critical to reduce the burden on the current force, some of whom have been fighting for nearly two years with minimal time away from the front. Without addressing these issues, problems with morale and exhaustion will grow over time, threatening any future offensives. Manpower management for both sides will be a key factor as the war stretches into 2025 and beyond.

Fourth, Ukraine can work with Western partners to significantly increase production of drones, as well as counter-drone electronic warfare systems, that will allow it to partially offset deficits in artillery ammunition and reduce its vulnerability to future disruptions in aid. Ukraine can produce first-person-view strike drones in large numbers, but they require funding and ammunition for them, which is a problem that is much easier to solve with Western help than the slowly increasing production of 155mm rounds. European nations could fund drone production facilities in Ukraine or in bordering states. This could partially compensate for the lack of artillery ammunition being provided. Larger quantities of mines, including artillery-fired scatterable mines, would also strengthen Ukrainian defenses.

The West should focus on providing proven capabilities needed in larger quantities that reduce casualties like protected mobility, air defense, or mine-clearing equipment. Ukraine still has a deficit of basic armored vehicles, especially tracked armored personnel carriers, to properly equip many of its units, which leads to unnecessary casualties. This is particularly an issue for National Guard and Territorial Defense brigades that are frequently employed as a normal Ukrainian mechanized brigade out of necessity but are not properly equipped for such a role. Armored vehicles are also needed to serve as ambulances. In some cases, it takes several hours before wounded soldiers can be evacuated because artillery fire is too intense, and there aren’t enough armored vehicles to spare. The transfer of greater quantities of M113 or armored Humvees, which are easy to maintain, would have an outsized effect.

Lastly, Western defense companies are more innovative than Russia’s defense industry, but they need the proper demand signals from Western governments to become more engaged. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense is also working through long running issues in contracting, and is trying to address them under new leadership. Foreign defense companies are testing weapons in Ukraine, but often in relatively small numbers and without a sense of urgency. To fix this, Western governments may need to sign contracts for the production of systems for Ukraine, which, ideally, Western militaries may also need themselves. For example, these can include jamming-proof modules and terminal guidance software for drones, electronic warfare systems, and remotely operated means of detecting and destroying mines. Such efforts dovetail with Ukrainian commander-in-chief Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny’s call for technological innovation as one pillar of the approach to break out from the relatively static battlefield dynamic.

A defensive-only strategy will not prove sufficient, but Ukraine will have to make careful choices. Strategy often reveals itself best in what you choose not to do. While there is a general consensus that Ukraine should pursue an “active defense,” what that means in practice needs to be defined. It should not translate into operations whose purpose is to simply fight for initiative or to apply pressure at the cost of manpower and ammunition that Ukraine cannot afford to expend. Conducting localized offensives may seem appealing, but only under the right conditions to attain a better position at low cost. Fighting for the initiative makes little sense if there are no resources to exploit it. In theory, localized offensives maintain pressure on Russian forces, limiting their freedom of action, but in practice, they could impede rebuilding the combat power of the Ukrainian military. It is also unlikely that localized offensives would prove more effective, or efficient, at constraining Russian force regeneration than just maintaining a good defense. From a manpower, equipment, and ammunition perspective, offensive operations require considerably more resources, of which Ukraine will be in short supply, compared to maintaining a defense. They can also be counterproductive for morale and recruitment, because soldiers intuitively know when taking the next tree line is not in the service of a wider operation or a strategy.

In 2024, the best defense is not likely to be a good offense, but rather one that maximizes efficiency and creates the right opportunities down the line. Ukraine can play to its advantages while defending, leveraging improved long-range strike capabilities — enabled by Western intelligence support — to target Russian bases and critical infrastructure far behind enemy lines. Essentially, the active component of the strategy is comprised of an extended strike campaign that helps set the conditions in 2025. Ukraine can steadily decrease Russia’s airpower advantage by targeting bases in Crimea and near its borders. Kyiv now holds the initiative in the northern parts of the Black Sea and can build on the success of a strike campaign against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. To this end, the West should help Ukraine ramp up production of its own long-range strike drones and revisit policies constraining the Ukrainian ability to employ Western-supplied missiles, which de facto make Russia a sanctuary.

However, a long-range strike campaign is a way of applying pressure and creating challenges for the Russian military, not a substitute for a major ground offensive. Ukraine will still have to overcome Russian defenses in the south, and achieve a breakthrough, to put Russian forces in Crimea in a precarious position. Even if successful, taking down the Kerch Strait Bridge or other ground lines of communication is unlikely to lead to a collapse of Russian positions in the south without the added pressure of a sustained ground campaign. That said, in the coming months Ukraine will have to avoid being fixed into unfavorable attritional fights that would undermine any prospects for success in the long term. Russia has more resources, and Western support is increasingly uncertain, so Ukraine cannot afford to fight in 2024 as it did in 2023.

Learning From the Missed Opportunity of 2023

To understand how best to plan for 2024 and 2025, it is important to briefly revisit why the offensive of 2023 did not repeat the successes of the fall of 2022. Ukraine achieved a breakthrough in Kharkiv in September 2022 against a premobilized Russian military with severely degraded forces, which did not prepare strong defenses. Once Ukrainian forces broke through the first line of defense, they quickly exploited and pushed deep behind Russian lines, even with relatively light forces. Although Ukraine achieved an important victory in Kherson, it was a difficult fight. Russian lines did not collapse, despite an unfavorable geography, defending with their logistical supply lines across the Dnipro River, under regular high-mobility artillery rocket system fire. In 2023, Ukrainian forces faced a large mobilized Russian military defending behind a much more densely fortified line that summer than they faced in Kherson or Kharkiv Oblasts in 2022. As we argued in December 2022, Ukraine was unlikely to face similarly favorable conditions in 2023.

Compared to 2022, when Russian brigades and regiments were often holding the front line with two or three understrength battalions, some of their regiments were defending with six or more that summer with additional battalions for rotation. They also continued to build new armies with contract soldiers such as the 40th Army Corps and 25th Combined Arms Army deployed that summer. They could sustain far greater attrition without breaking, and the network defenses made it difficult for Ukraine to exploit tactical successes. Russian forces also did not face the same logistics issues that summer as they did in Kherson, and overall Russian performance appeared improved on the defense when compared to the offense.

Although much ink had been spilled on this subject, including by us based on field work in Ukraine, in the end there were three factors that proved most significant in determining the outcome.

First, Ukraine lacked a decisive advantage in fires over the Russian military, and Russian forces were not sufficiently degraded through attrition prior to the launch of the assault, which meant there was no clear advantage to be exploited. Second, Ukraine could not effectively scale its employment of forces, operating at the level of two or three reinforced companies per brigade. This meant it could not exploit breaches or generate momentum. Combined arms integration was also lacking, though this proved tangential to first-order issues. Third, Ukraine lacked the enablers necessary to break through a well-prepared defense or to counter key Russian capabilities, like attack helicopters. In looking toward 2025, the West needs to think through on how to help Ukraine address all three categories of issues.

While their performance varied, the new NATO-trained brigades did not have sufficient time to develop unit cohesion or train as a unit. Furthermore, battalion and brigade commanders and staffs often struggled to effectively employ units above the company level. These results aren’t surprising given that the new Ukrainian brigades with mobilized soldiers were tasked with breaching very strong defenses, among the most difficult missions possible in combat, after a very compressed training timeline. In addition to the need for more training for new units, instead of forming new brigades, it may be preferable to attach newly trained battalions and companies to existing brigades or battalions, respectively. That way, these units will benefit from an experienced commander, adjacent infantry units, and supporting capabilities such as artillery and engineers.

However, insufficient training to operate at scale was not the only problem. Without the requisite fires advantage or enablers, addressing training alone would not have changed the outcome. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient for future success. Ultimately, Ukraine was unable to sufficiently degrade or suppress Russian anti-tank capabilities, which made it impossible to mass armor effectively, and small dismounted infantry assaults won’t lead to a breakthrough against strong defenses. There were also choices in overall strategy that compounded the risk. Pursuing a three-pronged offensive, with some of the best forces allocated to Bakhmut, split Ukraine’s artillery and most experienced troops. After the initial breaching operation failed, and Ukrainian forces significantly adjusted tactics, the strategy remained the same for the next four months.

The Bakhmut axis was overly resourced relative to the main axis of advance. Ultimately, rather than fixing Russian forces in a way that would enable Ukraine’s success, the Bakhmut offensive compounded the problem. Even with the forces committed to Bakhmut, Russia still retained sufficient reserves, including arguably its most elite unit, the 76th Air Assault Division, to prevent Ukraine’s tactical breakthrough in Robotyne in August from achieving operational or strategic effects. Given the strength of Russia’s defenses and airpower advantages, reaching the coast was probably a bridge too far, but the minimal goal, Tokmak, may have been achievable. Additionally, the transfer of cluster munitions and Army tactical missile systems, which were used to destroy or damage a number of helicopters in October, before the offensive could have given Ukrainian ground forces a temporary reprieve from Russian attack helicopters during the potentially decisive initial breaching attempt. This is not to say that a different approach would have resulted in success, but an overly deterministic reading of this history is also inaccurate because it denies agency to Ukraine and to the Western countries involved.

In planning for the next major operation, which will likely not be until 2025, the West and Ukraine should avoid planning for the last offensive. Technology and tactics have evolved in this war every few months. While at the beginning of the offensive the problem was minefields and entrenchments, backed by armor, artillery, and combat aviation, by the end of it, first-person-view drones had become one of the primary challenges. Meanwhile, the primary counterbattery threat to Ukrainian artillery is from Lancet kamikaze drones. One of the key challenges for the prospects of future Ukrainian offensives is artillery ammunition availability. Ukraine was able to achieve a fire rate of approximately 225,000 artillery shells per month last summer, more than twice the approximately 90,000 rounds it fired per month last winter; however, that was only made possible by a likely one-time transfer of artillery shells from South Korea to the United States to backfill deliveries to Ukraine. Even with that ammunition, the President Joseph Biden administration was forced to release cluster munitions to extend Ukraine’s offensive into the fall (arguably, these would have made the most difference ahead of the offensive). Western artillery production capacity is not sufficient to meet Ukraine’s expenditure rates even just for defensive purposes, necessitating continued deliveries of cluster munitions from stockpiles to close the gap this year.

Western-provided artillery ammunition in the future is unlikely to support a fire rate that exceeds Russia’s, at a rate of 10,000 per day or more — which will be sustainable by 2025 in excess of that number. Since Ukraine was unable to overcome Russia’s defenses last summer with a quantitative advantage with artillery ammunition, the prospects for future offensives will be worse unless Ukraine and its supporters can compensate by developing other advantages. This means that the volume of artillery fire will have to be supplemented with drones and other precision strike capabilities in the future. Alternatively, following Russian adaptation to high-mobility artillery rocket system fire strikes against logistical nodes, the West may have to come up with other ways to degrade the Russian rate of fire or reduce its efficacy. Russian electronic warfare improvements have reduced the effectiveness of NATO-provided global positioning system–guided munitions, such as the high-mobility artillery rocket system guided multiple launch rocket system and Excalibur artillery shells, which also needs to be addressed with future precision-guided munition deliveries. The planning should not only evolve, based on the experience in 2023, but it should also be cognizant of the adaptations and technological innovation on the battlefield that could increase or offset those requirements.

The War Is Far From Over

While a cursory look at material resources shows the war favors Russia this year, this does not automatically mean Russia will make major advances this year or that it is now slated to win the war. Moscow’s minimal war aims require it to seize more territory than it currently occupies, to capture the Donbas, and to lay claim to a host of territories it annexed but does not control. Russian forces cannot simply sit and defend to achieve these goals, and, as recent offensives illustrate, they too are struggling to break out of the current deadlock. Despite increased recruitment, Moscow still lacks sufficient manpower to rotate the personnel that were initially mobilized in 2022, which means it still faces a dilemma on how to sustain force presence in Ukraine. In 2023, the Russian military prioritized replacing losses and generating new combat formations over sustainability of deployments and their force posture in Ukraine. Hence, these remain issues they will have to resolve in 2024. Offensives like in Avdiivka take a heavy toll on equipment, costing hundreds in armored fighting vehicles. Despite high levels of spending on defense production, the Russian military is still replacing much of its lost kit by drawing on a finite pool of Soviet equipment. Russia’s ammunition situation is improving, especially due to supplies from North Korea and Iran, but it is still far from the advantage Russian forces held in 2022.

The West is advantaged in terms of technological innovation and financial resources, but much depends on political will. For example, although Europe missed its goal of 1 million shells this year, it has put $2.2 billion toward production and might well meet it by 2025. Western sluggishness is not the same as inaction, with some efforts gaining momentum. Yet despite the ability to out-innovate and out-produce Russia, it is Moscow that has leapt ahead in scaling production of drones and mobilizing its defense industrial base. Russian leadership is now visibly overconfident. They see the current trendline in this war as favoring them. Hence, the next year will prove important in demonstrating that even at the peak of its defense spending, and defense-industrial output, Russia is still unable to achieve its objectives in this war. Meanwhile, the costs will mount, and, ideally, it is Moscow that will face growing uncertainty in 2025.

Failure does not mean the war will resolve itself into a frozen conflict. Ukraine may begin losing the war this year, as Russian advantages multiply into 2025 and 2026. In 2024, the West faces a critical choice. Otherwise, as our colleague Jack Watling recently argued, the West will cede an irrecoverable advantage to Russia in this war. A defeat would see Moscow impose its will on Ukraine and walk away from the war believing that it had effectively exhausted and defeated the West. Despite the strategic cost to Russia, Ukraine would lose territory and would bear a higher burden for the war in population and economic losses. While Russia will pose an enduring military threat to European security in either scenario, a Russia that suffers a costly defeat is clearly preferable to an emboldened Moscow that is able to recover without having to worry about Ukraine’s armed forces.

This is a sobering reality, but this outcome is not inevitable. However, it will take hard political choices to bring this situation about both in Ukraine and in the West. Key decisions have to be made this year, the earlier the better, in order to put the war on a more positive trajectory. To succeed, Ukraine and the West must align expectations and articulate a clear vision for the next 18 months: what we are building toward, how, and what the theory of success is moving forward. Without a long-term strategy, it will be difficult to achieve unity of effort and manage scarce resources. If in 2024 Ukraine is able to exhaust Russian forces at the peak of Russian defense spending, then retake the initiative and inflict a series of defeats on the Russian military in 2025, it could establish the necessary leverage over Moscow in this war. This would require putting Russia’s military position in jeopardy, replacing Russian confidence with uncertainty. The goal is war termination, on favorable terms for Ukraine, and in a manner that ensures a durable peace or the Ukrainian ability to secure it down the line. A defeat would see Ukraine irrevocably lose territory, with Russia able to impose the peace on its own terms in a manner that would limit Ukraine’s sovereignty. Attaining the necessary advantage to achieve this is feasible by 2025. Much depends on sustained Western support and choices made now.

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