Ukraine's three big problems

There won't be a normal video from me on YouTube this week, so I decided to make the newsletter open for the public instead.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about Ukraine’s ammunition shortage, and how it has put the Ukrainian forces under pressure. They have a very unfavorable asymmetry in firepower compared to the Russian side. However, now that the American assistance package has been approved, we are beginning to see an increased focus on two other Ukrainian problems: lack of fortifications and a shortage of manpower.

Together these three deficits work together to increase the negative effects of the other. Without one, we might not even have noticed the others. But unfortunately Ukraine has ended up in a situation where there was a shortage of both ammunition, manpower, and fortifications. And while the deficit of weapons and ammunition could largely be attributed to political incapacity in the United States or production incapacity in Europe, the arrow points toward Ukraine itself when it comes to the other two problems. Ukraine has now taken measures to mitigate the problems, and I think some of the criticism has been unfair. But it’s still worth discussing them because the effects of these shortcomings will be felt throughout the summer. 

Lack of fortifications
Since Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive failed to deliver the anticipated results, and since Russia launched its own counteroffensive in the fall, there is been a lot of criticism of the Ukrainian government for not having built solid fortifications in time. The result has been that the Ukrainian forces have fought from disadvantageous positions against an attacking Russian force that has had much more firepower at its disposal.

Toward the end of the fall, the Ukrainian government did allocate substantial resources to the construction of solid fortifications, but it takes time to build these things. We are talking about hundreds of kilometers of trenches with proper protection and all the necessary facilities for military units to function. In addition to this it is hundreds of square kilometers of different types of obstructions like minefields, anti-tank ditches, dragon’s teeth etc.

The fortifications that Ukraine is now building are largely resembling the Russian defensive lines in the so-called Surovikin line. This was the line of defensive measures that largely spoiled Ukraine’s attempts at getting a breakthrough in the Zaporizhzhia part of the frontline during the summer offensive. In hindsight it is obvious that these Russian fortifications were able to stop the Ukrainian advances, and it is natural when the Russians then started attacking to ask the question of “why don’t we have such a thing”.

However, I think it is a bit unfair to criticize Pres. Zelensky and then-chief of defense Zaluzhny for not starting the construction of fortifications sooner. With the benefit of hindsight, it is often difficult to remember the line of thinking that went into decisions being made in the past. But if we go back to the period before the Ukrainian summer offensive, then no one was screaming for the Ukrainians to start constructing massive fortifications 15 km behind the frontline. The advice that Ukraine was getting from its NATO partners was to put all resources into the counteroffensive, and it was widely assumed that Ukraine would be able to set a whole new direction for the war by dealing the Russians a decisive blow.

Then-chief of defense Valery Zaluzhny together with the current chief of defense Oleksandr Syrsky during the Battle of Kyiv in 2022. Photo: Armed Forces of Ukraine

So strong was this conviction that neither the United States nor the European countries made a credible plan B for what the strategy would be in case the Ukrainian counteroffensive was a failure. (That is a large part of the reason for why Ukraine ended up with an ammunition shortage.) And while that in hindsight may seem like a naïve assumption, it is also worth remembering that at that time the Russian forces looked far from impressive. We still had the Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin running around screaming about a Russian ammunition shortage, and overall the Russian forces seemed far from invincible.

That does not change the fact that Ukraine now suffers from a lack of fortifications, but it does to some extent explain why the decision about the construction was not made sooner. It would have been a strange message if at the same time as Ukraine was preparing for a counteroffensive, they had also allocated a large part of their resources to preparing a retreat. 

Lack of personnel
The question of manpower is much more damning for the Ukrainian politicians. It has been obvious for a long time that Ukraine would need more mobilization to continue the war efforts, but the politicians have wasted time arguing back and forth in attempts at getting someone else to take the responsibility for unpopular decisions.

The times when volunteers were lining up for military service are long gone. Very few Ukrainians sign up voluntarily these days, and this hesitation to volunteer is exacerbated by the fact that there are really no attractive ways to ever leave the military again. Once you are in, you will stay until you are either dead or seriously wounded. There is an anticipation that a law will be passed to ensure that people can leave military service after three years, which will give potential volunteers a perspective of actually being able to leave the army and return to normal life with all of their limbs. But for the time being such a law has not been passed, and it is a significant obstacle when trying to persuade people to volunteer.

When looking at the frontline situation, it is obvious that the Ukrainian politicians should have made decisions about more systematic mobilization at least half a year ago. Unfortunately, they did not do that, and that means that the current manpower deficit on the frontline will continue for many months. This is not a situation that was unexpected, and military leaders in Ukraine have been talking about the need for mobilization for a long time. So it is really a case where people who should have known better postponed necessary decisions because they were uncomfortable.

The fact of the matter is that there is not a shortage in Ukraine of men of fighting age, who could put on a uniform. This is important to keep in mind when you run into the Russian talking point online that the Ukrainian manpower shortage shows that Ukraine is doomed. The necessary legal framework for mobilization in Ukraine has now finally been approved by the Verkhovna Rada, and a substantial round of mobilization should be expected. It is a big task to mobilize, train, and equip so many new soldiers, and it is something that Ukraine will need help in doing so they don’t have to divert too many resources from the frontline. But eventually, after the new wave of mobilization has been initiated, we should expect Ukraine’s manpower situation to improve after some months.

There has been much talk about the numbers of how many soldiers Ukraine needs. Former chief of defense Zaluzhny at one point mentioned 500,000, and this number is often repeated. I think it is unrealistically high. It is a number that was thrown out at a time when there were significant disagreements between Zelensky and Zaluzhny about the strategy, and frankly it sounded like a number that was intentionally designed to be unfeasible. It was the number of soldiers that Zaluzhny meant he would need in order to conduct an old-fashioned counteroffensive and push the Russians out of all occupied territories, and the purpose was to show that pursuing such a strategy was a bad idea. Instead, Zaluzhny's argument was that Ukraine's strategy should be based on new (and still non-existing) technology, which would make it unnecessary to mobilize all these people. In other words, it was never really Zaluzhny’s idea to actually mobilize so many people, but rather to make a point by throwing out an unrealistic number.

We don’t have an exact number four how many soldiers Ukraine has on the frontline today, but a rough estimate is that it is in the ballpark of 250,000 to 300,000 soldiers. The Russians are estimated to have some 450,000 to 500,000. The point is that mobilizing half a million Ukrainians would mean almost tripling the Ukrainian fighting force, and it is clear that such a dramatic growth is neither necessary to stabilize the frontline nor feasible in the short term. We should therefore expect a Ukrainian mobilization wave fairly soon, but the number will be much smaller than 500,000.

Problems are being fixed
So to sum up, Ukraine has three big problems that amplify each other and have created unfortunate effects. Without the delay in the American assistance package, the lack of fortifications and the shortage of manpower might not have been as noticeable as it is now. The important thing is that decisions have been made to solve the three problems, and that the situation can improve over time.