‘All of Ukraine is a battlefield’: Lessons about modern war

The Ukraine war has been the first battlefield contest between Russian and Western military hardware and tactics. What has it taught us about how future wars will be fought?

People walk past part of a rocket that sits wedged in the ground in Lysychansk
Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions of others from their homes [File: Leo Correa/AP]

The lessons of the Ukraine war are still being debated and assessed.

After all, there still is no official winner in this conflict.

But the war has clearly accelerated certain military trends, experts have said, indicating how future wars will be fought.

The information war

Social media is perhaps the greatest innovation in this war.

The internet has been replete with videos of Russian armour being destroyed by Ukrainian operatives, an underdog narrative amplified repeatedly by official Ukrainian channels.

In one audacious video, a Ukrainian drone operator suspends a bomb from his aerial vehicle with a piece of string as it hovers over a Russian tank, until he lowers it into an open hatch and it detonates.

Other footage shows drones dropping grenades into trenches where Russian troops think they are safe, killing them.

“We have learned how to attach small grenades and bombs to [drones]. Now, we can send up a small $3,000 Mavik 3 with a $30 grenade – and if you drop it perfectly on a T-90 you can take out a tank that costs millions,” a Ukrainian soldier recently told a Western reporter.

The psychological effect of showing Russians what will happen to them if they enlist in the armed forces is an aspect of what military officers call hybrid war, and it has clearly had an effect.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on a mobilisation of 300,000 new troops last September, he also triggered an exodus of three times as many Russians.

The Russian interior ministry recently said it had issued 5.4 million passports last year, a 40 percent increase on the year before, and was suspending new applications because it had run out of the electronic chips embedded in the passports.

“The Kremlin need not look further than passport statistics to poll domestic attitudes on the Russian population’s desire to fight Putin’s war,” said the Institute for the Study of War.

Such statistics, along with Ukraine’s videos, belie the Russian official narrative that it will win, or that society supports this war.

The march of weapons

But the drone videos also make a point about evolving military tactics.

“Instead of sending out people to do reconnaissance … you now throw up drones and have a perfect situational awareness,” said Dale Buckner, a US former special forces commander with many reconnaissance patrols under his belt.

He now runs Global Guardian, a multinational security consultancy.

“Then you fix [the target], and with long-range missiles and modern [High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems], you don’t need a platoon, company or battalion or brigade to go execute raids and offensive attacks in the way you might have in the past,” he told Al Jazeera.

This economy of manpower has favoured the weaker side – Ukraine – and demonstrated the increasing power of precise weapons.

Last July, Ukraine’s ministry of digital transformation started training civilian drone operators in flying and cloaking skills. This Army of Drones, using both Ukrainian-donated off-the-shelf drones and US-supplied military unmanned aerial vehicles, would deploy to the front lines to boost surveillance and targeting of Russian assets. This year, Ukraine’s general staff went further, saying they were forming the world’s first UAV strike companies.

France seems to have taken the lesson to heart, as well.

Last month, it announced an imminent reorganisation of its armed forces to reduce tanks and infantry regiments and reinforce drones and cyber-warfare.


The Javelin anti-tank missile, meanwhile, demonstrated the growing power of relatively inexpensive weapons to level an unequal battlefield.

And in July, when Ukraine fielded High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) – GPS-guided missiles with high accuracy at 80km (50-mile) range – it decimated artillery ammunition depots as well as armour.

“Our fear at the beginning of the war was that Putin’s ironclad armies would steamroll over Ukraine, but this didn’t happen,” said Andreas Iliopoulos, a lieutenant-general who recently retired as deputy commander of the Hellenic Army.

“The Javelin and other similar weapons exterminated tanks. That’s a new kind of war. We couldn’t have predicted that,” he told Al Jazeera.

Tank casualty figures after a year of fighting demonstrate just how deadly these weapons have proven. At the time of writing, the current documented tally of destroyed Russian armour stands at 5,924, of which 1,038 are tanks.

Ukraine has lost 1,895, of which 279 are tanks.

Iliopoulos believes this is the beginning of a new trend in warfare.

“The battle tank is finished in terms of the influence it used to wield. Huge battles involving tank formations will not happen again,” he said.

Ukraine seems to have accelerated a trend that was visible earlier.

Mass still matters

Others warn against discounting tanks, putting Russian failings down to poor command.

“Tanks as a concept have to be part of combined arms operations, which means they have to work … in combination with artillery and air support, reconnaissance and artillery,” said Chris Yates, a retired tank commander who fought in the second Gulf war.

“The Russians absolutely failed to use combined arms tactics – all these clustered convoys on roads and all these tanks driving around without any proper support – I think that’s why they failed initially,” Yates told Al Jazeera, pointing out that Ukraine is asking for more of them from its allies.


An analysis of the opening days of the invasion by the Royal United Services Institute concluded that the main thrust of Russian forces from the north towards Kyiv was “intended as a demonstration of power” and “not anticipating heavy fighting”.

“Many Russian soldiers arrived in towns without their weapons loaded … [and would] begin to try to engage with the civilian population to understand where they were. Their position would be reported and the Russian unit would be engaged with artillery,” the RUSI report said.

Not anticipating resistance, the Russian forces did not bring enough fuel or maintenance supplies and had to abandon many of their tanks.

“I don’t think anyone should predict the end of armour. What’s happening is the battlefield is becoming more lethal for all weapons systems, including tanks,” said Panayotis Gartzonikas, a former armoured division commander in the Hellenic Army and lecturer at Greece’s National Defence College.

“Movement has become more difficult. Anything that moves is struck. The battlefield has become transparent,” Gartzonikas told Al Jazeera, but he insisted that the tank is irreplaceable. “The speed, manoeuvrability, protection and firepower of the tank is not matched by any other system,” he said.

‘The whole of Ukraine has become a battlefield’

Gartzonikas also believed the Ukraine war has put all of society at war.

“The battlefield is not linear – you can’t say, ‘These are our friends on this side and these are our foes on the other’,” he said. “It’s undefined. Effectively, the whole of Ukraine has become a battlefield. The distinction between civilian and military no longer exists. The trend was there, but in this war, it has reached new heights.”

The targeting of civilian populations has been perhaps a greater feature of this war than of any other.

Last November, Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Russia had fired more than 16,000 missiles at Ukraine, 97 percent of which had landed on civilians.

Only about 500 had landed on purely military targets, he said. Approximately 220 had landed on energy infrastructure, but those relatively few had clearly had the greatest impact on the country.

Ukraine learned on the job, and fast.

Last December, its deputy military intelligence chief Vadym Skibitskyi told Bild that Ukrainian air defences now have a 75-80 percent kill rate for Russian cruise and ballistic missiles, which are notoriously difficult to intercept, and sometimes a 100 percent success rate against kamikaze drones.

But as it has so often done in this war, Ukraine also turned adversity to advantage through an information campaign.

The pictures of suffering civilians news and social media carried westward brought back hundreds of generators to restore water and power to Ukraine’s cities.

More importantly, they brought the West’s most sophisticated air defence systems and sparked debate on whether to send longer-range offensive missiles or fighter jets with which Ukraine could punish Russia for more than 7,000 documented civilian deaths.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons Ukraine has taught the world about war is an old one: the value of alliances.

“While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the alliance has stopped short of deploying forces to Ukraine, it has demonstrated a resolve that had been absent before now,” wrote retired Major-General Mick Ryan on Substack.

Russia ostensibly invaded Ukraine to prevent it from becoming a NATO member.

“Ukraine is already an integral part of Euro-Atlantic security,” wrote Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba last October.

“We do not yet have Article 5 umbrellas over ourselves,” he said, a reference to the alliance’s mutual defence clause, “but all NATO members are de facto under the umbrella of Ukraine, under the protection of our Armed Forces.”

Source: Al Jazeera