Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War
The World Should Take Him Seriously
During more than 13 months of war against one of the world’s largest armies, Ukraine’s military has continually stood out for one quality in particular: its ability to adapt. Over and over, Ukraine has nimbly responded to changing battlefield dynamics and exploited emerging technologies to capitalize on Russia’s mistakes. Despite their limited experience with advanced weapons technology, Ukrainian soldiers quickly graduated from point-and-shoot Javelin and Stinger missile systems to the more sophisticated High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which they have used to pummel Russian command centers, logistical assets, and ammunition depots. They have deployed military and commercial drones in increasingly creative ways. And although this is not the first war to play out on social media, the Ukrainians have been giving the world a master class in effective information operations in the digital age. Such is their record of technical and tactical versatility that Ukrainian forces continue to enjoy a sense of momentum, despite the fact that the frontlines have been largely frozen for months.
By contrast, Russian forces have shown limited openness to new tactics or new technologies. Hobbled by bad leadership and terrible morale , the Russian military was slow to recover from its disastrous attempt to seize Kyiv in February 2022 and has struggled to adjust its strategy or learn from its mistakes. This is despite having demonstrated considerable dexterity in its deployments in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria starting in 2015. In the current war , although Russian military leaders have made some adjustments to alleviate logistical problems and improve coordination on the ground, the Kremlin’s core strategy continues to rely largely on throwing more manpower and firepower at the enemy—a lumbering, high-cost approach that has hardly inspired confidence. Observing this performance, some Western experts have raised the possibility of exceedingly dire scenarios, including a doomed Russian spring offensive, a large-scale mutiny of troops, or even the collapse of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
In short, the extent to which each side has been able to adapt has become a key factor shaping the course of the war. For Western analysts, Ukraine’s nimble tactics offer crucial insights into the conflict, including how they may spur future shifts in the war. But as the frontlines have become increasingly hardened, it is also important to take into account the limits of adaptation. For Ukraine’s allies, it will be crucial to understand the particular ways that this process has contributed to Ukraine’s remarkable success but also to temper expectations about what it can achieve in the months to come.
Ukraine’s capacity for adaptation has been especially impressive in light of its recent history. Underfunded, poorly trained, and crippled by corruption, the Ukrainian military failed to repel the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas in 2014 and could not regain lost ground. Since then, however, the Ukrainian military has undergone major, albeit incomplete, reforms to professionalize its forces and modernize its military equipment. Those efforts paid off in 2022. Although Ukraine’s leadership was initially skeptical of intelligence from the United States and other international partners indicating that Russia was planning an assault on Kyiv, the Ukrainian military put contingency plans into place in the months leading up to the invasion, and despite being caught off guard by the scale of the offensive, Ukrainian forces quickly recovered from Russia’s attempted “shock and awe” campaign. Then, in April 2022, when Russia shifted the war to the Donbas, where the open terrain and shorter resupply lines seemed more favorable to Moscow, Ukrainian forces were able to evolve, shifting away from the asymmetric, insurgency-style tactics that helped them defend Kyiv and toward those suited for fighting a large-scale conventional war. By late summer, Ukraine was rapidly regaining lost territory.
Ukraine’s rapid ability to integrate new technology into its operations has also been striking. As dozens of countries began sending high-tech Western weapons and equipment to Ukraine, some reports from the frontlines indicated that Ukrainian fighters lacked the training and experience to use them and that the Ukrainian military in general was struggling with the logistics and maintenance demands of so many different systems. Yet despite these challenges, Ukrainian soldiers have quickly adapted to sophisticated foreign weapons, ammunition, and materiel. In late August and throughout September, Ukraine’s effective use of HIMARS—the advanced mobile rocket launchers that Washington began delivering in June 2022—helped push the Russians out of Kharkiv and parts of Kherson. Ukrainian forces have also become adept at using deception to protect HIMARS from Russian artillery and air force attacks—for example, building wooden replicas of the system as decoys and keeping HIMARS operators’ roles and locations highly secret. U.S. military trainers have acknowledged how quickly Ukrainian soldiers learned to operate advanced Western systems, including the Patriot missile systems that the United States has announced it will deploy to Ukraine.
Ukraine has used AI to help capture Russian communications.
Ukrainian forces have also showcased their innovative and experimental thinking in their use of drones . As the war has increasingly been dominated by artillery and missile exchanges in recent months, Ukrainian units have integrated drone operating teams with their artillery to improve the accuracy of nonprecision strikes as well as to help with targeting in real time and collecting targets for future attacks. Ukrainian forces have equipped large Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones with laser-guided missiles to supplement their reconnaissance capabilities. They have also deployed small reconnaissance drones, such as the Chinese-made Mavics, and even jury-rigged some of them to be able to drop small antipersonnel grenades.
Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has relentlessly appealed to Western governments to provide military aid, the Ukrainian leadership has also recognized the value of direct assistance from international manufacturers of advanced technology . Immediately after the Russian invasion, through a direct appeal to Elon Musk on Twitter, the Ukrainian government was able to secure access to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet system and terminals, which have kept the military’s communications networks intact even as Russia has repeatedly targeted the country’s communications infrastructure. Many other companies, including Microsoft, Palantir, Planet, Capella Space, and Maxar Technologies, have also worked through Western intermediaries or directly with Kyiv to provide data, equipment, and various technological resources for the war effort. In April 2022, Wired reported that Primer, a U.S. company specializing in providing artificial intelligence (AI) to intelligence analysts, had shared machine-learning technology with Ukraine. According to the company, its AI algorithms were being used by Ukrainian forces to automatically capture, transcribe, translate, and analyze Russian military communications that were transmitted on unsecure channels and intercepted.
Of course, official Ukrainian reports describing the country’s use of new technologies must be scrutinized carefully. Kyiv has a clear incentive to emphasize the effect of advanced Western systems on its war effort in order to encourage the United States and its European partners to continue such support. From open-source reporting, it can also be difficult to assess whether Ukraine has deployed these innovative technologies widely or only on a few occasions. Nonetheless, it is clear that, unlike its enemy, Ukraine has been able to learn from and respond to unexpected and shifting battlefield conditions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year was not the first time that Moscow has vastly underestimated the capabilities and resolve of an adversary. In both its first war in Chechnya in the 1990s and its war with Georgia in 2008, Russia was plagued by significant structural and organizational failures, including in preparation, planning, and information sharing. Over the past decade, however, the Russian government has pursued an extensive and expensive military modernization effort. And during more recent deployments to Syria and eastern Ukraine the Russian military appeared far more adept at integrating emerging technologies and new concepts into its operations.
Indeed, Russia’s brutal intervention to support the Assad regime in Syria has been described as a “proving ground” for Russia’s military reforms. According to Russian government sources, Russia tested some 600 new weapons and other kinds of military equipment during its intervention in Syria, including 200 that officials have described as “next generation.” For instance, although Russia had a relatively limited fleet of reconnaissance drones at the beginning of its Syrian campaign, it ramped up production and deployment after 2015, and by 2018, it was able to deploy some 60–70 drones a day in a variety of battlefield situations. Some of the drones were used to create a theater-wide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network that could relay targeting information and direct airstrikes.
Russia’s intervention in Syria also allowed its military to experiment with integrating human and machine warfare, including the use of robots and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) alongside regular forces. Russia tested a variety of such technologies, such as the small Scarab UGV, which can be used for clearing mines and gaining access into underground facilities, and the Uran-6, a larger remote-controlled vehicle that also has mine-clearing capabilities. These experiments did not always go smoothly: in its first test in an urban combat mission, a larger UGV, the Uran-9, had serious problems with communications, navigation, and hitting moving targets. But these forays provided valuable real-world insight into how autonomous and AI-enabled systems could assist soldiers on the battlefield, and they have often been cited by Russian military analysts as showing the promise of AI.
Russia experimented with unmanned robots in the Syrian War.
In both Syria and eastern Ukraine, the Russian military was also able to use its modernized electronic warfare capabilities to disrupt enemy communications. So frequent was Russian interference with cellular, radio communications, drone, and GPS signals in Syria that the head of U.S. Special Operations Command described the war as “the most aggressive electronic warfare environment on the planet.” And during the war in the Donbas in 2015, General Ben Hodges, then the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, described how Russian electronic warfare “completely shut down” Ukrainian communications and effectively grounded their drones. U.S. military analysts have also noted that in at least one incident during the fighting in the Donbas, Russian forces were able to use intercepted cellphone signals to target Ukrainian soldiers with artillery strikes.
Yet very little of this innovation has been apparent in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Over the past year, Moscow has largely given up on the battlefield experimentation and learning that defined its campaigns in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Despite having a broad range of robotic and autonomous technologies in different stages of development, the Russian military has seemed unwilling or unable to field such systems in the current war. On occasion, open-source analysts have identified new high-tech weapons being deployed by Russia, including the KUB-BLA loitering munition, which is designed to use AI to identify targets. But there is little evidence of their use, and some observers have expressed doubts about such reports. Russian forces have also shown little success with electronic warfare and cyber-operations, areas in which they were believed to hold an advantage.
As the war has unfolded, Russia has made some adjustments. Early on, it shifted its resources to eastern Ukraine after being rebuffed at Kyiv and focused on the more limited objective of “liberating” the Donbas. Having taken a beating from Ukraine’s HIMARS for months, Russian forces finally began dispersing their command-and-control nodes and moving logistics and weapons depots out of the weapons’ 80-mile range. Faced with severe shortages of manpower and ammunition, Russia has also looked to foreign partners for assistance—buying Iranian and Chinese drones and, according to U.S. intelligence reports, even preparing to buy rockets and artillery shells from North Korea. Overall, however, Russian forces appear to have entirely lost the insights they gained in Syria about the value of flexibility.
For over a year now, Kyiv’s extraordinary capacity for adaptation has kept its military in the fight. Equally important, the country has inspired confidence among its Western allies that its forces can continue using new weapons and technologies to take advantage of Russia’s mistakes, regain territory, and maintain high levels of motivation and capability. Moscow’s military performance, meanwhile, has inspired no one. Confronted with major losses of both equipment and troops, the Russian military has been under enormous pressure to retain whatever combat effectiveness it can and has had little spare capacity for experimenting with new technologies. But how significant are these contrasting performances to the ultimate direction of the conflict itself?
The dynamics of the war in the coming months will likely hinge on Russia’s unfolding spring offensive. Experts will debate whether the Russian leadership is aiming for a large-scale assault to take new territory or a more modest attempt to consolidate gains, and there will doubtless be continued scrutiny of the low morale and poor quality of the Russian forces. At this point, however, with both sides increasingly dug in along fairly stable frontlines, larger shifts in the war are unlikely to play out in a 24-hour news cycle. Moreover, the Russian military can continue fighting poorly for a long time —in fact, it has a long history of doing just that. Further still, the Kremlin, for some months now, has focused on reorienting the Russian economy and society toward a long war and preparing to outlast Western financial and material support for Ukraine. And although Western analysts and observers may be tempted to conclude that Ukrainian forces’ knack for adaptation will give them an edge in the long term, it is important to recognize that they are facing a far larger army led by a regime that has demonstrated a continued willingness to sustain enormous losses.
The Ukrainian military’s skill at integrating advanced weapons and new technologies has continually surprised not only its adversary, but also Ukraine’s own partners and allies in the West. Yet new technology and weapons, no matter how sophisticated, are unlikely to prove decisive. In fact, it is difficult to say whether there can be a decisive end to a war like this—a prospect that seems unlikely for the near future.