The Ukraine Diaries is a series of personal writings by national security experts who took part in The Cipher Brief’s recent visit to Kyiv as part of a delegation led by Gen. David Petraeus (Ret.) This latest trip follows two earlier visits to Ukraine this year by The Cipher Brief team, and insights from The Cipher Brief’s Kyiv Economic & Security Forum that launched in May 2023.
THE UKRAINE DIARIES – Just back from my third trip to Kyiv in as many months, I wanted to share some observations on Ukrainian successes and challenges and pass on their expressions of thanks to the American people and to the Western Coalition for the amazing support to the defense of Ukraine.
Ukraine Government & Society
Ukraine’s national commitment is unwavering. There are no gaps. Everyone is focused on winning this war. “Ukrainians have no way out, we will continue to fight,” is what many told me.
Military, parliamentarians and the local population are all exhausted, physically, and mentally. There is no rest after 18 months of combat.
Current War Fight
Ukraine’s military has adapted quickly, which enhances their chances for success. But so have the Russians. We must not underestimate Russia’s military capability.
Despite all the modern technology, success in trench warfare is where progress is measured. Enhanced technology in the close fight is needed.
Ukraine is now a world leader in drone warfare and is becoming a global center of excellence for drone warfare.
The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are fighting on the battlefield in two styles: one NATO/western and the other, the old Soviet style. This is a problem. Many senior officers have previously trained in Soviet style warfare. They know of no other way.
The battlefield in Ukraine is an invaluable laboratory for future warfare. The U.S. must have a process to capture these valuable lessons in Ukraine and not attempt to do it from a distance.
F-16s are not a silver bullet to a victory but they can provide an edge by interdicting Russian Close Air Support and defending Ukraine’s territorial boundaries.
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Recruiting around the country continues to be a challenge while maintaining the initial, intermediate, and advanced base of education for Ukraine’s military.
Veterans who were discharged from the military many years ago, have been pressed into service for the current fight and are serving on the front lines.
When your life depends on adaptability, learning quickly, and innovation, much is accomplished. That is why Ukraine’s training on NATO-provided equipment can and should be accelerated.
Maintain & Sustain
There is currently little progress being made toward maintaining donated equipment on the battlefield. Fixing damaged equipment today is a concept, not a reality. Institutional military training capacity building is needed now. If this is not addressed immediately, Ukraine’s future military capability is questionable.
Those who are taking care of Ukraine’s wounded military service members are overwhelmed. If this isn’t addressed quickly, it will have severe internal implications.
Hold the Line
Ukrainians are sensing that support from the United States is waning. Kyiv is concerned that if U.S. support stops, then so would support from the rest of the world. Success on the battlefield requires continued U.S. support.
Small pick-up teams of non-supported, non-sanctioned volunteers from the U.S. and other nations are providing limited training support. There is zero standardization of the support they are providing and there is a U.S. policy mismatch. Our words do not match our actions. Changes in U.S. policy must be considered to allow U.S. funded contractors to support the Ukrainian Military on the ground.
Read The Ukraine Diaries: Is Ukraine a Vital U.S. National Security Interest by Cipher Brief Expert and former senior CIA Officer Paul Kolbe
Ukraine is not going to give up this fight, no matter how long it takes. Kyiv has mobilized its entire society and is completely committed to victory. Ukrainian military efforts along the front and in the trenches, are clearly making progress but all the ammunition and new equipment in the world will not win this war alone. Finding those decisive advantages over Russian efforts is the task at hand, while not underestimating the Russians. Western assistance to help build enduring institutions, integrate old with new systems, train the force, and care for wounded veterans is what is needed desperately.
‘The Fight’ is a new podcast from The Cipher Brief team focused on life and war in Ukraine. Join us as we level-set what this war is really about. Listen and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.
Learning from this battlefield is also essential as we see both sides adjusting their tactics to gain advantage. We must seek ways to capture these adjustments and draw lessons from the changing conduct of war, emerging technologies and employment, the integration of varied weapon systems across the spectrum, as a start. Military advisors and observers have done this in every conflict since the U.S. war of Independence. Seasoned veteran advisors and observers can do the same today.
Helping Ukraine not only win the current fight but plan for the post conflict environment is our duty – we must continue our support. The reputations of both the U.S. and NATO are in question. And our biggest challenge is not allowing Ukraine to lose this war.
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