“Just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” Ukrainian general Valerii Zaluzhnyi admitted late last year. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

That blunt assessment from the Ukrainian commander in chief, made in a November interview with The Economist, prompted waves of enormous pessimism. Headlines around the world seized on the idea that the war had essentially ended. Ukraine had fought valiantly—and lost.

Politicians in the West, particularly Republicans in the United States Congress, declared that it was time to stop supplying Kyiv and push for major concessions to Moscow.

The general’s actual point, however, wasn’t quite so fatalistic. In an accompanying nine-page essay, published in the British magazine, Zaluzhnyi doesn’t use the word “stalemate.” Instead, he called the war “positional,” with both sides trading just tiny slivers of land. Critically, however, he said Ukraine can still win. But it will mean, he wrote, “searching for new and non-trivial approaches to break military parity with the enemy.”

Technological innovation, more modern equipment, and changes in strategy could still turn the tide of this war, Zaluzhnyi argued. He laid out five areas where progress could mean overcoming their Russian opponent: achieving air superiority, improving mine clearing, expanding counterbattery, recruiting more soldiers, and advancing electronic warfare.

To achieve those goals, he wrote, Ukraine needs a once-in-a-century technological breakthrough.

“The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing and they see everything we are doing,” Zaluzhnyi writes. “In order for us to break this deadlock we need something new, like the gunpowder, which the Chinese invented and which we are still using to kill each other.”

In recent months, WIRED has spoken to a host of NATO leaders and military analysts, as well as Ukrainian officials, regarding the future of the war. The consensus is clear: There is no silver bullet Ukraine can develop that will win this war. But there is agreement that Ukraine can and must innovate if it hopes to overcome its better-resourced and dug-in enemy.

“The thing that will break the logjam will be the right combination of new ideas, new organizations, and new technologies,” Mick Ryan, a 35-year veteran of the Australian Army who writes extensively on the future of war, tells WIRED. “It’s really about how you combine that trinity of ideas, technology, and organizations into something new.”

Ukraine has already changed the future of warfare. Its use of aerial drones has revolutionized combat. It has developed and deployed the world’s first tactical naval drone. It jury-rigged a remarkably effective air defense system. It is leveraging artificial intelligence to conduct high-precision missile and drone strikes. It has consistently bested Moscow in the cyber and information spaces. If it can scale any of these technologies, or come up with new ones, it has a fighting chance to actually win.

Zaluzhnyi has sketched out the breakthroughs Ukraine will need to win this war. If it can do that, it may also change the future of conflict forever.

Embracing Positional Warfare

In November 2022, just nine months after Russia’s full-scale invasion, Zaluzhnyi triumphantly declared that Ukraine had liberated a huge swath of territory in Ukraine’s southeast. Months prior, Kyiv had liberated Kharkiv, its second-largest city, and was continuing to push the Russian invaders back. Now, in a surprise move, it was on track to liberate Kherson.

The speedy attacks caught Russia by surprise and prompted its extraordinary withdrawal across huge swaths of Ukrainian territory.

That run of victories, made possible by new weapon systems delivered by Ukraine’s NATO allies and its own creative use of technology, drove sky-high expectations ahead of Kyiv’s 2023 summer counteroffensive. Western media anticipated that Ukraine would break through Russian lines with similar ease and speed.

Ukraine’s drive to regain more territory, however, crashed into dense and well-fortified Russian defensive lines, descending into the positional warfare that Zaluzhnyi describes. Ukraine inched forward in some areas and retreated elsewhere. Moscow had, apparently, learned from its mistakes.

“The Russian military is often underestimated in terms of its propensity to learn and apply lessons on the battlefield,” Karolina Hird, an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War and the deputy team lead for their Russia desk, tells WIRED. Russia had swapped in new, rested units; fortified complex layers of trench lines; and laid 15 to 20 kilometers of minefields through Ukrainian territory. They named this formidable defensive network for the since-ousted commander of the war effort: the Surovikin Line.

This new “active defense,” as Hird describes it, is a fairly traditional set of defensive tactics. Even with advanced Western artillery and counterbattery, and advanced tank systems, Ukrainian soldiers simply couldn’t advance without facing constant shelling and dense minefields.

“The Ukrainians didn’t necessarily have the equipment or the type of trained brigades to break through that incredibly soundly arrayed defense and overcome Russians—that were defending in a doctrinally consistent and, actually, quite sound way,” Hird says.

The failure to advance has prompted a tactical shift from Kyiv. During one of his nightly addresses in early December, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said it was imperative that Ukraine beef up its own defensive lines. It was a recognition that the front lines had, for the time being, frozen.

While some interpreted this development as a sign that the war is all but over, Ryan, the Australian Army veteran, says it’s a prime opportunity for Ukraine to refresh its strategy.

“Maybe Ukraine should embrace positional warfare for the time being,” he says. “Maybe that is the way it reconstitutes, regains its strength, and thinks through the problems that it has—from the tactical through to the strategic level.”

It’s a strategy that has already shown some dividends, Hird says. “Ukraine is very much preparing defensive positions, letting Russians run themselves against those defensive positions.” Ukraine estimates that Russia has lost more than 400 tanks, 500 artillery systems, and 30,000 soldiers in December alone.

“Whenever Ukraine feels that they have the equipment they need, the support they need … and the initiative shifts to their side, they can use those defensive positions as springboards,” Hird adds.

While a slowdown in fighting may benefit Ukraine, it helps Russia as well. It is now a race against the clock to plan how Ukraine may launch another counteroffensive that can breach the Surovikin Line.

Enough to Win

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Kyiv has received tens of billions of dollars in military aid, including a raft of advanced equipment. But Ukraine’s position has also been, as Zelensky put it recently, that the aid was “not enough to win.” (But, he added, “we are thankful it was enough to defend.”)

Fearful of Russia’s “red lines,” the United States has consistently slow-rolled or withheld key technology that could help Ukraine’s advance. Meanwhile, Zaluzhnyi wrote in The Economist, Russia “retains and is able to maintain a superiority in weapons and equipment, missiles and ammunition.” What’s more, Moscow’s defense industry is ramping up production of the ammunition and gear necessary for its continued assault on Ukraine.

“We know that with continued US support, continued Western support, that likely would be the final push that Ukraine needs to liberate its own territories,” Hird says. “But political considerations, financial considerations, defense and industrial base blocks, that sort of thing, really inhibit our ability to bring that to bear. And that’s very much what Russians are counting on.”

A particular problem has been Russian artillery.

Ahead of Ukraine’s 2022 counteroffensive, the country received shipments of the American-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). Those systems, particularly when fitted with medium-range missiles and aided by counterbattery radar, were able to quickly move and target advanced Russian systems well behind the front lines, clearing the way for Ukrainian forces to advance freely across the battlefield. But novel technology became routine fairly quickly in battle. “Russians have very much learned how to target HIMARS,” Hird says. “So Ukrainians can’t use them to the same effect.”

“Now, at each step of the way, the Russians are interfering with you, right?” Ryan says. “They’re doing camouflage for their locations. They move things more frequently, now, than they used to. They attack counterbattery radars and other detection systems with loitering drones. And they are denying the use of precision munitions, in large parts of the battlefield, through the use of electronic warfare.”

To overcome this problem, Ryan says, Ukraine needs to close the “detection to destruction gap.” Ukrainian forces need to be able to avoid detection and to be mobile enough to evacuate in a matter of minutes if they are picked up by Russian radar or drone surveillance—while, at the same time, detecting Russian positions and attacking before they can escape. The gap, he says, has shortened from about 10 minutes from detection to destruction to just two or three minutes.

“It’s a complex set of problems, but it’s a known set of problems,” Ryan says. He believes it will require some heavy lifting from NATO’s research capabilities to solve them.

There’s also a question of scale. Since Ukraine managed to destroy some of Russia’s advanced and expensive artillery system, Moscow has deployed a huge number of its older systems, opting for brute force instead of nimble targeting. Russia has achieved parity not through technology, but through volume.

According to leaked Pentagon documents, as of early 2023, Russia owned nearly 5,000 artillery systems—of which only about 20 percent had been destroyed. Ukraine, by contrast, has received, at most, a few dozen HIMARS systems. Even if the missile system is less effective than it was in 2022, a greater quantity would undoubtedly give Ukraine an edge. That’s also true for the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, which Ukraine began receiving late last year. A group of pro-Ukrainian Republican lawmakers decried that weapon transfer as a “job half-done,” as they arrived in small quantities and equipped for only some of their intended capabilities.

“All these innovations—at the end of the day, it’s about scale,” Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s minister of defense, tells WIRED. “If you don’t have the innovations which can be produced in such quantities that will change the course of the war, it means that they still have to rely on the existing methods and existing weapons systems.”

There is some optimism that new weapons deliveries could tilt the balance more in Ukraine’s favor, particularly the Dutch-supplied, American-made F-16 fighter jets and the Abrams M1 tank. Ukrainian soldiers are training on both platforms now.

“Mr. Putin is going to find out that there’s a whole lot of weapons systems coming on board that he is not going to be able to respond to,” US senator Mike Rounds, who sits on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, tells WIRED. “And it’s going to give Ukraine the opportunity to continue to advance and take back the land that is theirs.”

Throughout the war, more and more advanced missiles and launchers have enabled Ukraine to strike deeper and deeper into Russian-held territory. Now, Ukraine has successfully managed to attack supply routes as far as the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia, and Belgorod within Russia proper.

But Kyiv wants to reach even further into Russian territory, stepping up its tactical strike campaign to attack Russian ships, airfields, supply depots, and command centers that are currently out of reach. If Ukraine can destroy Russian warehouses and stockpiles near the front lines, and increase the distance its trucks must travel to resupply its positions, it could negate the effect of Russia’s overwhelming artillery.

But Ukraine still lacks several types of those longer-range missiles and has relatively low quantities of the munitions it has received. “We’re probably not going as fast as a lot of us would like,” Rounds told reporters at the Halifax Security Forum in November.

More HIMARS and long-range munitions are critical in overcoming that parity, but they will be meaningless if Ukraine runs out of more basic ammunition. “It’s not just a matter of providing some of the new technologies,” Rounds said. “It’s a matter of making sure that they actually have the other resources that they need to make it through the winter time.”

In recent weeks, Ukraine has had to ration its 155-mm caliber artillery shells due to shortages. Various NATO countries have tapped into their stockpiles to provide those shells over the past year, and are now scrambling to boost domestic production. Bill Blair, Canada’s defense minister, admitted in November that there are “shortfalls” in that production capacity. “We need to see the same type of investment and progress in increasing production here in North America and in Europe,” Blair said.

Ramping up that production in NATO countries could take a year or more. Zaluzhnyi wrote that Ukraine needs to produce this equipment, and even more advanced weaponry, itself.

Some of this is already happening. Ukraine’s defense industry is being “overhauled for innovation,” Hird says. A prime example is Kyiv’s Seababy naval drones, which were developed inside Ukraine and have managed to deliver devastating damage to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. But the volume of output will need to increase drastically.

So as Ukraine tries to boost production at home, it is fighting a three-front war: one on the front lines; another deep inside its occupied territory and even in Russia itself, where warehouses and stockpiles sit; and a third in the information space, worldwide, in trying to convince its allies to continue and boost their support.

Fortifying its defenses will buy Ukraine time to come up with new strategies and test out new technologies—but it should also be an invitation to rethink its “strategic influence narratives,” Ryan says. That is, convincing NATO to not just maintain its support, but increase it.

That also means fighting back against Russian propaganda. Last month, the BBC and the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank, uncovered a massive Russian disinformation campaign on TikTok, designed to discredit Ukrainian officials using narratives tailor-made for Western audiences. It is just one skirmish in a broader information war, where Ukraine is losing ground.

While Kyiv has its supporters, like Rounds, Blair, and Pevkur, it also has new opponents. Mike Johnson, the recently elected speaker of the US House of Representatives, has held up billions in military aid. Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, has similarly frustrated support from within the European Union. Big wins for pro-Russian politicians, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Robert Fico in Slovakia, could threaten future aid packages.

Information Superiority

An “essential” part of breaking out of this position warfare, Zaluzhnyi wrote, is obtaining “information superiority.” Understanding the battlefield better than the enemy.

It may seem counterintuitive. This is a conflict where, as Hird puts it, “everyone knows what everyone’s doing at all times.” The war in Ukraine is probably the most visible conflict in human history: Both sides have employed a suite of drones, radar, aircraft, and satellite to chart every inch of the conflict. But, as Ryan explains, an aerial view is only a piece of the picture.

“We confuse increased transparency with increased wisdom,” he says. “And they’re two very different things.”

Military planners often talk about ISR: intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. (Sometimes the acronym is expanded to include target acquisition.) Certainly, Ukraine has managed to do incredible reconnaissance, particularly thanks to its fleet of drones, which it has integrated tightly into its ground operations. But it can do more, Ryan says. Russia’s ability to quickly move and deploy its reserve units has previously caught Ukraine by surprise, he notes.

Figuring out how to not just improve its intelligence collection, but make it more accessible, will also be key.

Last fall, Luxembourg and Estonia launched a new IT coalition, with an eye to connect the private sector to the Ukrainian military. “The coalition, of course, will not change the course of the war immediately,” Pevkur says. “But it’s just one piece of the puzzle to find the solutions.”

“We’ve sent some software to them to help shape the battlefield,” Pevkur says. He says they’ve already received “good feedback.”

One such piece of software is SensusQ, an Estonian AI-powered platform that mixes real-time footage with a variety of other inputs, from social media updates to human intelligence. The company says its platform is already in use in multiple places across Ukraine.

Kyiv has also used software developed by tech giant Palantir to conduct target acquisition, deploying AI and facial recognition technology to identify Russian positions. While Palantir has not revealed exactly which capabilities it is providing to Ukraine, the company recently unveiled “a ChatGPT-style digital assistant that enables operators to efficiently deploy reconnaissance drones, devise tactical responses, and orchestrate enemy communication jamming,” as the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology described it last June.

Shyam Sankar, Palantir’s chief technology officer, told a US Senate committee last year that Ukraine’s ability to integrate new technology into its military, particularly AI, has seen the timeline from procurement to implementation trimmed “from years and months to weeks and days.”

What makes this innovation particularly remarkable is how widespread it has already become.

“I think the Ukrainians are well down this path to what I call the democratization of digital command and control,” Ryan says. “They have pushed down digital command and control, the access to information, on smart devices in a way no other military has really done.”

Decentralizing intelligence collection and distribution means units are armed with much more information on the front lines, and are more equipped to make decisions on the fly instead of being reliant on senior commanders. Ryan says it will be crucial to push that information further down, and more quickly—but it will also be necessary to improve the flow of information upward.

“The Ukrainians are pretty good at bottom-up adaptation,” Ryan says. But they need to be able to apply battlefield lessons quickly, in a systematic way. “It’s been improving, certainly, since my first visit—and I’ve had some pretty long conversations about it on my last one, about six weeks ago. But I think that systemic learning culture is something that they need to continue improving because the Russians aren’t very good with bottom-up innovation.”

Given the speed at which Ukraine is learning and adapting, it will also require that its NATO partners be willing to adapt at the same speed. Pevkur insists they are already well on their way. “So that means that when they have the weapon system and they use it, we will get some feedback, we will change it,” he says.

Prior to last summer’s counteroffensive, American military planners held a series of tabletop exercises with their Ukrainian counterparts to game out how the fighting could play out. Ryan says that kind of collaboration needs to be broader and deeper, geared to win the war, not just individual battles.

“We can be their strap-on brain,” Ryan says. “We can work through the theories that might help with more effective offensive operations in this scenario. I mean, NATO has hundreds of people who are military planners and can help do this.”

What Comes Next

In the coming months, Ukraine and Russia are likely to opt for missile and drone strikes instead of big ground operations, as winter sets in and they work to refresh their ground forces.

If last year was any indication, Moscow will spend early 2024 expanding its defensive lines and deploying a huge amount of hardware to the battlefield, new and old—mines, artillery systems, fighter jets, and missile launchers.

If Ukraine hopes to advance this year, it will likely need to discover its own equivalent of gunpowder. That may come in the form of uncrewed land vehicles, which could crash through Russian lines and clear the dense minefields in its way. Or, perhaps, Ukraine will finally find a way to network its drone fleets and attain air superiority over its skies. Maybe it will achieve a breakthrough in electronic warfare, devising a way to jam Russia’s systems and neutralize its missiles and loitering munitions. Kyiv may receive the long-range missiles it has been requesting or begin producing its own. Perhaps it will be all of the above, or something else entirely.

But as Kyiv and its allies work feverishly to find that breakthrough, it will need to continue perfecting the tactics that have made it such a worthy adversary thus far. That will mean holding its international coalition together, making the most of its existing weapon systems, and figuring out how to adapt on the fly.

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