Tanks and armored vehicles have fired away at each other in open fields and small villages, reminiscent of the ugliest battles in World War II. But using drones to obliterate logistics columns or adjust fire for Ukrainian artillery batteries miles away from the front also offer a glimpse into a way of fighting that analysts have talked about for years, but are only now being put to use in Ukraine.
A former U.S. special forces officer, who saw the change in Ukrainian special operations forces over the years, said by 2020, the Ukrainian commandos “looked, smelled and tasted like Western SoF.”
The searing, daily combat experience in Donbas over the past eight years has meant that those troops closest to the fight saw first hand how individual initiative in small unit combat is key.
Those young soldiers and their officers “were the ones burned from the experience and [who] realized ‘hey, we can’t have everything go to the general before we make a decision,’” said retired U.S. Army Col. Liam Collins, who worked as the top aide to John Abizaid, the retired four-star who then-President Barack Obama sent to Kyiv to advise the Ukrainian military leadership from 2016 to 2018.
That combat and the hands-on training by NATO in western Ukraine spawned a new generation of small-unit leaders and noncommissioned officers who can think and act independently. The changes weren’t immediate, but the hard-won knowledge from regular skirmishes quickened a “cultural change at the battalion level on down,” Collins said. “An entire generation understood how to lead, and I think the generals understood that it worked.”
A modern lieutenant general
Zaluzhnyy has said that the Ukrainian military is filled with young, professional soldiers and future leaders. “These are completely different people — not like us when we were lieutenants. These are new sprouts that will completely change the army in five years. Almost everyone knows a foreign language well, works well with gadgets, they are well-read,” he told ArmyInform. “New sergeants. These are not scapegoats, as in the Russian army, for example, but real helpers who will soon replace officers.”
“We have already started this movement, and there is no way back,” he added. “Even society will not allow us to return to the army in 2013.”
The hit-and-run tactics used by Ukrainian soldiers this year have had a stunning impact, blunting the Russian military machine in very real ways. Of the 120 battalion tactical groups Russia pushed into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 40 of them — including those that led the assault on Kyiv and Chernihiv — have retreated to Belarus to refit.
As many as 29 of those groups are currently incapable of fighting due to the massive losses suffered at the hands of small teams of Ukrainians armed with Western-provided anti-armor weapons. It could take up to four weeks for some of those units to refit and be ready to deploy to eastern Ukraine, one Western official confirmed to POLITICO.
The thousands of Javelin, Stinger, Panzerfaust and other anti-armor and air missiles provided by NATO countries have become a staple of social media feeds, spawning memes, t-shirts and music videos, but the cultural changes within the Ukrainian military have arguably made a bigger impact on the battlefield. NATO exercises have been a key element in the relentless work to eliminate any trace of “Sovok” thinking — the Soviet mentality that left a legacy of corruption and complacency, and which persisted for nearly a quarter-century after independence.
“Their infantry, artillery, innovative skill and being able to use drones and synchronize them was pretty impressive,” said a former U.S. officer who has made multiple trips to Ukraine to advise the military, and who requested anonymity to speak about the training mission. “Their special forces and airborne forces were excellent. There was a part of me, that when I first got there, that made me think they were more Soviet than even the Russian army. But over time, you could see the change.”
Melnyk, the air force officer turned analyst, said the battlefield successes, including in the northern suburbs of Kyiv, were a direct result of the military modernization.
“NATO tactics [and] the training were adjusted to the Ukrainian realities — and that’s why it has produced quite an impressive result,” Melnyk said. “We saw Russians moving these huge columns … it looks like World War II tactics. Instead, Ukrainians used the advantage — they knew the terrain. They have these mobile units and strike and hit.”
Bars, not stars
Zaluzhnyy’s appointment as commander in chief was itself a part of a larger overhaul of the Ukrainian military. Zelenskyy named him to the top operational position in July 2021. It came following a major shake-up in the defense ministry, and coincided with a restructuring of the military’s uniformed command to separate operations from policy positions, not unlike how the U.S. military clearly defines duties and responsibilities.
“The president wants to see synergy between the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy’s press secretary, Sergey Nikiforov said at the time. “Unfortunately, we do not see such synergy. We see conflicts.”
Zaluzhnyy would later sum up his role in succinct terms. “Now, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I am responsible for combat readiness, training and the use of the Armed Forces,” he told Radio Svoboda in the September interview.
Since the start of the large-scale Russian attack at the end of February, Zaluzhnyy has shunned most interviews, and made relatively few public appearances while issuing occasional public statements via his Facebook page.
Some of these posts are short operational updates, about the downing of Russian fighters or the destruction of a Russian tank column. Others are just quick messages, thanking military doctors, for instance, or sending inspiration to troops and the Ukrainian public.
March 22: “The Armed Forces of Ukraine are the shield of Europe”
March 27: “The price of freedom is high. Keep this in mind!”
April 2: “Ukrainians have forgotten to be afraid. Our goal is to win.”
But other posts are lengthy, including a readout on Sunday of his phone conversation with U.S. Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, with whom he has been in regular contact.
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