By Dejan Azeski
We are steadily approaching the beginning of the third year of the war in Ukraine, referred to by the Russian side as a Special Military Operation. Up to this point, we have witnessed a duel between the best weapons and tactics of both Russia and the NATO alliance, unfortunately resulting in hundreds of thousands of fatal casualties on both sides. We have seen numerous sacrifices and the uncompromising struggle of both armies, yet what remains elusive is the current outcome of the battles and any indication of who might emerge as the clear victor in this clash of civilizations, and whether there will ever be one. As things stand currently, the Russian military holds a more advantageous position. Not only have they withstood a six-month offensive by the finest NATO arsenal with almost no loss of captured territory, but they now seem poised to launch their own offensive. However, this does not necessarily signify a definitive outcome, as the scale and stakes in this war are so immense that a single battle cannot alter the course of such a vast conceptual showdown between two opposing sides of our planet.
NATO weapons are superior, yet Russia prevails on the battlefield
It has been more than thirty years since war correspondents captured the iconic photograph of the best tank in history, the M1 Abrams, towering over the silhouette of a seemingly much smaller and weaker Soviet T72 tank somewhere on the infamous Highway of Death at the border between Kuwait and Iraq, during the renowned Operation Desert Storm in 1991. One is square in shape and has a high-raised top like a bodybuilder on steroids, while the other is small and curved, with a completely burnt-out and lowered top, likely symbolizing the impotence demonstrated by Saddam Hussein’s army. This image was truly brilliant, reflecting the overall outcome of the war when the Iraqis lost approximately 500 T72 tanks for every damaged M1 Abrams. It is a power ratio unprecedented in history, and this statistic likely fuelled the myth of the invincibility of Western weaponry, paving the way for nearly three decades of undisputed dominance by Washington and its allies on the global geopolitical stage. If we add to this the extremely poor performance of the Yugoslav fighter aviation during the bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 (specifically referring to the squadron of 14 MiG-29s, not the air defence system), and the even worse performance of already obsolete Soviet arms during the second Desert Storm in 2004, it becomes clear why many anticipated that NATO weaponry would effortlessly roll through Ukraine this autumn. However, this obviously did not happen, much to the surprise of all of us, except perhaps a few Russian generals and strategists whose optimism and advice to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the years was evidently not without grounds.
Firstly, it was clear that the Iraqis, despite possessing several thousand Soviet tanks, lacked adequately trained tank crews. Therefore, it was a strategic mistake to use T72 tanks, prized for their manoeuvrability, solely as self-propelled artillery, rendering them easy targets for Abrams tanks equipped with advanced GPS devices. On the other hand, in 1999, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia inherited perhaps the best pilot corps in the world, but unfortunately, it lacked the appropriate equipment to capitalize on its experience and skills. The MiG-21 fighters, constituting the majority of the fighter aviation, were considered insufficient to take on much more modern and numerous F16s, and thus were not deployed in combat. Additionally, several MiG29s, apart from not being modernized in time, lacked functionality due to outdated systems installed on them. Furthermore, the constrained manoeuvring space in the already traversed airspace of the FRY compared to the almost unrestricted movement of NATO aircraft, posed an additional challenge.
Russia and its military are evidently not grappling with the issues observed in Iraq or Yugoslavia; on the contrary, they possess a sufficient quantity of modern and upgraded equipment, coupled with an adequate number of regular personnel to employ it effectively. Therefore, the war in Ukraine has revealed that the power ratio in tank battles, such as those involving the German Leopard 2 tank and its counterpart, the T90, is not 500 to one, as witnessed in Iraq, but that the Russian side even manages to gain an advantage in this statistic. Within a few months, long-standing myths have crumbled around American armoured vehicles like the Bradley, the pride of the British military industry—the Challenger tank, but most of all, the German Leopards. While there’s no conclusive evidence of the M1 Abrams being destroyed in the field, even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged the poor performance of this superweapon in the Ukrainian swamps and the inadequately small number supplied by the United States to Ukraine. Even the most successful weapon of the entire war, the American mid-range Himars multiple rocket launcher, cannot make a significant difference on the ground, despite its near-flawless accuracy in hitting targets. The reason? Like all other Western weapons in this war, there is complete incompatibility with all backends, and, above all, the lack of maintenance support that any tank or modern weapon needs.
This issue with weapons reflects a broader challenge for Ukrainian society and the nation. Just as Ukrainian generals struggle to integrate Western weapons with Soviet repair workshops, Ukrainian politicians are attempting to impose German attributes on the Slavic and Orthodox population, which not only hasn’t worked but failed even a thousand years ago when national concepts were much more flexible and liberal.
The consequences of these issues are readily apparent on the battlefield. Ukraine and Russia are losing tanks at a nearly equal rate, but the difference is straightforward: Russian engineers can readily recover damaged tanks, sending them to numerous repair facilities like the one in St. Petersburg. The same tank often returns to the front not only repaired but also with upgrades. This efficiency extends to the numerous captured Soviet-era Ukrainian tanks, which are now in widespread and inconspicuous use in the Russian army. On the other hand, when an expensive tank like the Challenger or Leopard is damaged, its repair in Ukraine is still nearly impossible, and sending it to the United Kingdom is extremely impractical and costly.
Secondly, another even greater challenge lies in the availability of sufficient ammunition for the arsenal of powerful weapons Ukraine has received. Some estimates suggest that the Russian military uses up to seven times more grenades on the front than the Ukrainian forces. The reason is evident: Russian grenades may be less precise, but they are cheaper and more accessible, unlike those from NATO countries, which demonstrably and physically cannot be delivered in the required quantities. At the moment, the Himars systems are indeed like spaceships compared to the Russian BM21 Grad systems (recently returned to service from storage). However, if the Russians respond to one medium-range Himars rocket with a thousand short-range Grad system projectiles, then, regardless of Ukraine’s technical superiority, the Russian military will again emerge victorious. Furthermore, Russia itself possesses more advanced rocket launchers with even greater range than the Himars. Therefore, Russia continues to employ the old Soviet tactic of not aiming for the world’s best weapon, but rather one that is adequately effective and easily available for production and use. This echoes the philosophy of the legendary T34 tank, which, despite being totally inferior to German tank divisions in terms of quantity, simplicity, and speed, managed to win the war after significant sacrifices and losses.
Reading all of this inevitably raises the question: Can NATO defeat Russia in any way (using conventional weapons)? The answer is an immediate YES. NATO stands as an unprecedented military force in world history, currently uniting a billion people and at least several hundred million potential recruits, which is ten to fifteen times more than the overall unconfirmed maximum number of Russian recruits. Additionally, in many technological segments, from aviation to the navy (where they are the strongest), they are decades ahead of Russia. However, NATO definitely cannot defeat Russia using the same strategy employed in Afghanistan, where the USSR certainly did not fight with such focus, nor were the stakes so high.
The Surovikin Line as a meld of traditional and modern warfare
The catastrophic losses of Russian military hardware near Kyiv can be largely attributed to the American man-portable anti-tank missile Javelin (FGM-148 Javelin) and the Turkish heavy drone Bayraktar (Bayraktar TB2). Ill-prepared Russian T-72 tanks proved no match, and as a result, thousands of them never returned home. Whether by divine intervention or belated realization, Russian generals woke up to their mistakes and began rectifying them in the following months. When it comes to defending the already conquered territory from the long-anticipated Ukrainian offensive, many scoffed when the Russian army started deploying so-called “dragon’s teeth” on the front line. These are primitive anti-tank obstacles in the form of small pyramids dating back to World War I, consisting only of bare concrete and nothing more. The humour was aimed at the absurdity that in the 21st century, Russians hoped to stop modern Western tanks like Leopard 2, Challenger, Bradley, and even Abrams with nothing but dragon’s teeth. However, it later turned out that the trenches, minefields, and dragon’s teeth weren’t meant to halt them entirely, but rather to slow them down and expose their weakest points. These weak points would then be targeted and penetrated by the countless drones now literally being churned out by children in every household in Russia. The result is evident: Ukraine lost thousands of tanks and armoured vehicles in just a few months of its counteroffensive. Western generals were horrified to see their celebrated tanks burning from the strikes, not only of heavy drones like Okhotnik and Lancet but also much smaller ones like Geran and even more terrifying commercial micro-drones.
The Russian defence industry quickly recognized the potential of this type of warfare and adapted accordingly. Small commercial drones that can be easily purchased in any supermarket are modified into artillery correction devices. Slightly larger drones are equipped with carriers to transport old Soviet mines and grenades, of which Russia apparently has an almost endless supply. The larger and still relatively easy-to-produce Geran drones now have the capability to perform one-way suicide missions, bypassing the issue of electronic jamming. The largest drones, such as the Suhoi S70 Ohotnik, are reserved for taking out high-value military targets. In this way, Ukraine is not just mimicked and outplayed in its own game but has also entered into a competition with the Russian defence industry, which it clearly can never win.
The International Institute IFIMES previously highlighted that, alongside tanks, assault helicopters were the weakest link in the early stages of this war. Nevertheless, with the benefit of experience and extensive modifications, particularly in the area of medium-range guided missiles, Russian assault helicopters like the Ka-52 Alligator have been brought back into play. In conjunction with Surovikin’s Line of traditional defence, they’ve become a winning combination that has effectively turned Zaporizhzhia into a graveyard for Western tanks.
Western generals are likely most irked by the fact that the line of their biggest defeat bears the name of General Sergei Surovikin, whom their media dubbed Armageddon from Syria for his last-minute reversal of the war there. If not for his close ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin and possibly some involvement in the Wagner mutiny, the Russians would surely be looking to this general as their new marshal, continuing the tradition of great marshals like Potemkin, Suvorov, Kutuzov, and Zhukov.
Ukraine’s sole victory – a naval battle won without a fleet
Excluding events from the first two months of the war, especially those around Kyiv, the Russian army has indeed demonstrated greater ground capability and won almost every battle, except for those from which it strategically withdrew in time. Surprisingly, the situation in the Black Sea basin, where the Black Sea Fleet was anticipated to establish dominance, unfolded in the opposite direction, with Ukraine emerging victorious. This is likely the first time in maritime history that the winner in a sea battle is a side without a single ship.
As a reminder, on the first day of the Special Military Operation, the Russian cruiser Moscow and the large patrol ship Vasily Bikov attacked Snake Island on the border with Romania, asserting naval dominance on the very first day. In the initial weeks, Ukrainians were forced to scuttle their only frigate in Mykolaiv to prevent it from falling into Russian hands. Thus, Ukraine was left entirely without ships and was compelled to switch to guerrilla warfare, which seemed unrealistic to many, especially on a vast, deep body of water like the Black Sea. However, eagerness and technology work wonders, and since Elon Musk made Starlink internet fully available to the Ukrainian army, they resorted to forming a fleet of fast naval drones, something never used before. Overnight they became a nightmare for the hitherto unrivalled Russian Black Sea Fleet, a force to be reckoned with in the region since the times of Catherine the Great. It’s worth noting that Turkey closed the straits to all other warships in accordance with the Montreux Convention in February 2022, granting the Russian fleet a complete monopoly. Yet, even that wasn’t enough.
The Ukrainians achieved their first major victory by seemingly accomplishing the impossible – the sinking of the cruiser Moscow, arguably the world’s most heavily air-defended ship at the time. This tremendous blow not only to the pride but also to the operational capability of the Russian military allowed thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles to fly and sail towards Crimea and Sevastopol every day uninterrupted for the next year. This forced almost the entire Russian naval fleet to literally flee from their famous ports and relocate to the Subcaucasia, to the city of Novorossiysk. Although not sufficiently promoted in the media, this was a massive defeat for Moscow, which has probably left Sevastopol without naval fleet defence for the first time in 300 years.
The Ukrainians delivered a third major blow with renewed strikes on the Kerch shipyard, not because they destroyed a new and state-of-the-art missile corvette there, but because they disrupted the construction of two Russian helicopter carriers. These are the largest warships Russia has begun building since gaining independence. Besides replacing the French Mistrals (which were basically stolen from them in 2014), they were intended for the long-announced naval landing on Odesa, where the triumphant conclusion of this war had long been planned. Although nothing is officially mentioned, it’s realistic to expect that Russian engineers are pausing this major project, initially slated for completion in 2028.
F-16 won’t change a thing
Just as infantry and navy engage in a battle of wits, aviation encounters the same strategic challenges in this war. In the initial days, Russia executed massive missile attacks, virtually decimating the Ukrainian Air Force, which dwindled to just a few planes and helicopters. Only later did their numbers begin to recover through imports or donations of almost all the remaining Soviet planes in Eastern Europe, upgraded to a basic level to carry offensive weapons like British Storm Shadow missiles. Despite these efforts, Russian aviation maintained dominance throughout the conflict.
Understanding or anticipating this, Western generals supplied Ukraine with medium and long-range air defence systems, such as the American Patriot. This dealt a serious blow to Russian aerospace forces, which, at one point, faced the risk of abandoning aerial support with conventional bombs entirely. However, someone, whether through original thought or inspired by the West, realized that a relatively simple modification of old World War II aerial bombs could enable them to be dropped from distances exceeding 40 kilometres, rendering the Ukrainian air defence almost useless once again. Each day, an increasing number of bombs, such as the Fab 500 and Fab 1500, with conventional or cluster munitions, rain down on Ukrainian trench positions, causing a significant number of casualties. There are even ideas, allegedly originating from Dmitry Rogozin (former head of Roscosmos), suggesting the conversion of old space rockets into carriers for larger versions of Soviet bombs, such as the Fab 6000. These could be used to penetrate even the deepest bunkers or demolish entire barracks with a single strike. This plan is yet unconfirmed but technically possible, and if the conflict between Russia and NATO intensifies, we might, at least once, witness the deployment of the so-called “Father of All Bombs,” carrying 10,000 kg of explosive material.
To prevent all of this, Ukraine has been lobbying in the West for some time now to receive at least a few squadrons of F-16 aircraft. This is a well-known smaller-sized fighter bomber with good manoeuvrability. Apart from posing a threat to the Russian Su-34, which is mainly used for dropping heavy bombs, the F-16 would also provide offensive capabilities as a replacement for the dwindling number of MiG-29s in Ukraine’s inventory.
Despite initial protests, the West has begun training Ukrainian pilots for F-16s, and it is expected that the Ukrainian military will start deploying the first squadrons in 2024. The main dilemma is how many of these aircraft are needed to turn the tide of this war. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, this number is likely infinite. The problem lies in the F-16’s performance, which has been in operational use for over four decades and is not primarily designed for air superiority but rather for close combat. While Ukraine is expected to receive a modernized version equipped with longer-range missiles, engaging Russian Suhois, and particularly strategic Tupolev bombers, necessitates entering Russian territory. This is inevitable since the entire front runs along the Russian border, meaning Suhois almost always launch attacks from the border or minimally cross the imaginary line established before 2014. This line also marks the limit of the Patriot system’s range. Once Ukrainian F-16s enter Russian territory, they’ll be entirely at the mercy of the S-400 systems. These same S-400s have already decimated almost entire Ukraine’s MiG-29 fleet, an aircraft very similar to the F-16 and arguably in some aspects even superior to it. Moreover, the fact that Russia has not only bombers but also at least hundreds of modern and well-armed fighter and interceptor aircraft such as Su-35, MiG-31, MiG-35, and even the most state-of-the-art Su-57, all of which are far more advanced than the F-16, must also be taken into account. Therefore, theoretically, these fighters could eliminate the entire Ukrainian air force in a single day, as they did at the beginning of last year.
Even if none of this happens and no one interferes with Ukrainian F-16s, leaving them free to bomb wherever they please, the actual damage they can inflict is debatable. As previously mentioned, it is primarily a small fighter jet with limited air-to-ground capacity. Taking into account the need to fly from Western Ukraine, meaning most of their payload would be fuel, they could barely carry one heavy bomb and one or two Storm missiles, which Ukraine already uses and launches from MiG-29s. Russians have already boasted about shooting down several of these expensive missiles. In other words, unless the U.S. and Europe plan to provide Ukraine with a thousand F-16s and sufficient armament, it is highly doubtful that these aircraft can significantly impact the course of the war. This has actually been acknowledged by high-ranking NATO generals and officials, with even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg mentioning it on one occasion.
Which weapons can truly make a difference?
Nevertheless, the West possesses weapons that could impact this war. For their own territorial defence, the U.S. has several hundred units of the best fighter jet in history, the F-22 Raptor, which has truly been unmatched in the world for twenty years. Sending even a few squadrons of this superweapon would likely make even the Russian air force stop flying over Ukraine, as they currently have almost nothing that could stand against these aircraft. Adding just a few of the dozens of B52 heavy bombers owned by the U.S., among the last in the world capable of so-called carpet bombing (considered more dangerous than a nuclear attack), would create a combination that the Russian army would not be able to withstand. It is possible that this discussion is redundant, as the United States has not provided, let alone sold, the F22 or B52 to any country, not even their allies. The U.S. doesn’t even use them on aircraft carriers and reserves this superweapon exclusively for its military use. It is highly unlikely they would offer it to Zelensky or anyone else, or change their stance.
However, an even more cutting-edge weapon system, currently available for export, could prove ideal for Ukraine and potentially make a partial difference in this war. The problem is that this exceptional product is expensive and currently available in very limited quantities.
It is of course the F-35 fighter-bomber—an aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing, equipped to carry a substantial arsenal while remaining sufficiently fast and manoeuvrable to defend itself or at least escape enemy fighters. On paper, the concept of an aircraft embodying all these features may seem incredible, but the Americans have successfully developed this aviation marvel by drawing inspiration from the British Harrier II and the Soviet Yak-41 prototype.
Given that almost all runways in eastern Ukraine are damaged or completely destroyed, this aircraft would be ideal as it can take off from virtually any concrete school basketball or handball court. It would appear in places where the Russians least expect it, achieving a psychological effect in which the “enemy doesn’t know what hit them.”
However, with a cost exceeding $200 million per unit and requiring complex and expensive maintenance, the F-35 is currently only available to the most loyal U.S. allies. For now, its operators are limited to the United Kingdom (using it on their new aircraft carriers), Japan, South Korea (whose helicopter carriers became overnight light aircraft carriers thanks to this aircraft), and of course, Israel. Even Turkey, despite paying for them, was denied F-35s as punishment for disloyalty in acquiring the Russian S-400 air defence system.
Furthermore, if such state-of-the-art weapons approach the Russian border, their engineers would stop at nothing to get hold of this technology, and the hunt for this aircraft would be an open season with all available means.
In any case, despite all the risks and exorbitant costs, this is likely the only weapon that could make a real difference on the ground.
The West has been defeated at its own game
Analysing the design of most Soviet and Russian weaponry reveals a striking resemblance to their American or British counterparts. Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has adopted the practice of copying the West in everything superior to their own, aiming to make copies even better than the originals.
However, weapons are a lesser problem in this war. The bigger issue is that Russia has started to emulate the working practices of Western countries, especially in the areas of professionalization and propaganda. The Russian army, whose reliance on conscripts rather than professionals was considered a major weakness for decades, has undergone a complete overhaul in just two years of this war. As a result of a decision by their Ministry of Defence, there is not a single soldier on the front lines (domestic, foreign, mercenary, or professional) who has not first signed a contract and received a salary that is considered enormous by Russian, and especially Ukrainian, standards. In addition to quelling unrest and pacifying families of the fallen, at least for now, this policy has also improved the quality of life for Russian soldiers, leading to increased morale and professionalism. This has created a mini-economy on the front lines, where soldiers with their substantial income can purchase newer models of boots, body armour, helmets, and anything else they need. This not only eases the logistical burden of the war but also reduces costs for the Russian army, which only provides basic equipment. Moreover, excluding the first two months of the war, we have witnessed a much more responsible treatment of the Russian general staff toward their troops. They have been allowed multiple times to abandon entire cities (Izium, Kherson, etc.) and withdraw to safer positions, unlike Ukrainian soldiers who are either sent on continuous offensives or forced to defend virtually untenable positions like Bakhmut, Mariupol, and now Avdiivka. As a result, service in the Russian army has become significantly more attractive, and it is constantly replenished with volunteers from Russia and around the world, almost eliminating the need for mobilization. On the other hand, the Ukrainian army is not paid, relies heavily on mandatory recruitment and has recently turned to private recruitment companies with unchecked authority. These assertions have been confirmed by The Economist, a top-tier global media outlet based in London, lending them substantial credibility. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that there have been numerous desertions from the Ukrainian army, as well as direct defections to the Russian side, where several units have already been formed exclusively from former Ukrainian soldiers who switched sides.
In addition to the professionalization of the military, another area where Russia has successfully copied and surpassed the West is its propaganda efforts. It is no secret that the West has consistently trounced Russia in this field, racking up victories like a hundred to zero scoreline. This was particularly evident at the beginning of the war when all Russian foreign channels, like Russia Today and Sputnik, were banned overnight, temporarily leading to completely one-sided reporting on the war. As if anticipating such a scenario, Moscow promptly launched thousands of mini news sources, most likely informed and coordinated from a single hub. Utilizing secure social media platforms like Telegram, they managed to become an El Dorado for conspiracy theorists, right-wing activists, anti-establishment movements, and similar groups in the West. Today, an unstoppable torrent of pro-Russian-tinted information is not only flooding the former Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Eastern Europe, and the Balkans but also the EU and the U.S., contaminating public opinion and cultivating a significant group of people who support Putin’s cause. This would have sounded unbelievable just two years ago, but the Russians have, to an extent, succeeded in this endeavour. Their plan, a modified copy of Western special warfare manuals, is surprisingly yielding positive results.
Nuclear weapons will not remain a taboo subject for much longer
Given that, for the first time in a while, we find ourselves in a war where a major nuclear power like Russia could theoretically face existential threats, the question arises as to whether the use of nuclear weapons could be considered for the first time since 1945.
Many analysts dismiss this idea off hand, arguing that Russia would immediately face an attack with all the weapons in NATO’s arsenal. First of all, this is absolutely not true. Neither in official nor unofficial documents have Washington or London committed to retaliating for potential damage Ukraine might suffer as their temporary ally in a potential nuclear escalation of the war. If this were to happen, global geopolitics would escalate to the maximum, but it’s unlikely we would witness any intercontinental ballistic missiles flying towards Moscow or St. Petersburg. The United States simply would not risk a retaliatory strike solely because Russia decided to test a long-range missile on the uninhabited Snake Island in the Black Sea, as a recent pro-Russian scenario suggested.
Even a direct attack on Warsaw or London, cities demonstrably at the top of Russia’s hypothetical target list, would not necessarily trigger a full-scale nuclear response from NATO. In no NATO document is it explicitly stated that one member country must aid another to the extent of putting itself in complete existential peril. While the organization’s statutes and actions stipulate collective defence and an appropriate response, nowhere is the precise nature of that response explicitly defined.
To provide clarity, it is necessary to consider that nuclear weapons, like all other arms, have undergone significant evolution over the years and decades, and today serve a purpose vastly different from their role in 1962, for example. In those times, constrained by the limited precision of technology, the imperative was to produce the most massive warheads possible to inflict damage over the largest possible radius because the accuracy of carrier missiles was measured in kilometres. For instance, if Russia wanted to target New York in the 1960s, its military experts couldn’t guarantee whether a projectile with SS markings would hit Central Park, the Bronx, or Long Island. Nevertheless, they could guarantee that a substantial part of the city would be destroyed due to the weapons carrying explosive power equivalent to several tens of kilotons or many times that of Hiroshima.
However, that was sixty years ago. As the precision of projectiles has advanced (now measured in meters, and even centimetres), the role of nuclear weapons has evolved and transformed. Today, the primary objective of Russian and American missiles would be to disable as much of the enemy’s military and industrial assets as possible, rather than waste weapons destroying Broadway theatres or Beverly Hills mansions. The notion that there’s a button capable of suddenly detonating and annihilating the entire planet has been dismissed. No. Even if such a classic attack were to occur with all missiles launched at once, estimates suggest that no more than a third of the U.S. population and half of the Russian population would perish in the initial strike. While subsequent radiation, lawlessness, and the theoretical threat of a nuclear winter could cause additional casualties, the idea that the entire world would be obliterated in an instant is definitively ruled out.
Therefore, unfortunately, nuclear weapons will soon begin to be used in smaller quantities for regular military operations like breaching deep bunkers, neutralizing large infrastructure and industrial facilities, or even destroying entire barracks or training grounds. If not in Ukraine, then in the Middle East, and most likely between India and Pakistan. The taboo surrounding nuclear weapons will be broken very soon, and this will sadly become commonplace in the far bloodier wars that evidently await us all.
Terminological and definitional inconsistencies
Given that this is a war in which we see two daily truths and almost no facts, not even factual opinions between the two sides, some theoretical questions really need clarification.
Firstly, and very controversially, is this even a war or a special military operation as Putin personally insists on calling it? Many world authors, including myself, find it illogical to label a special operation a conflict already involving nearly a million soldiers and an impressive amount of military equipment. Moreover, it’s a conflict that indirectly involves almost the entire world. But regardless of the scale, some accompanying elements are missing for this conflict to qualify as a proper war. First and foremost, there are almost no attacks on decision-making centres. Russia indeed uses hypersonic missiles to penetrate bunkers where NATO officers usually sit, but these are mostly lower-ranking officials who have come to help Ukraine. Therefore, there are no direct missile attacks on Zelensky’s residences, work offices, or any assumed third location. There are no missile attacks on the Valerii Zaluzhnyi’s General Staff Headquarters. The Parliament or Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv still stands, and regular sessions are held there, while in a real war, this building would have been destroyed in the first minute. There are no missile attacks on third countries supplying Ukraine with large quantities of weapons, such as Poland, which is, of course, explained by their membership in the NATO pact. However, if this were a real total war, Warsaw with such a degree of involvement in this conflict would certainly not be spared. The actual number of soldiers and equipment on the front line is debatable. It is true that Russia has rotated nearly a million soldiers so far, but we must consider that this is a country with an official reserve force of around 25 million alongside its active personnel. These figures may be inaccurate or inflated, but around 15 million could likely be mobilized at any given moment in Russia. Within this pool, only 300,000 have been mobilized so far, as those currently participating in the war are either domestic contracted volunteers or foreign mercenaries. Finally, there’s the limited use of the most lethal weapons in the Russian arsenal. We have already mentioned that the largest conventional bombs and missiles carrying thousands of tons of explosives, owned by Russia since Soviet times, have not yet been seen on the front. All these are elements that need to be taken into account when defining this conflict in one way or another.
Secondly, an even bigger question that begs to be asked is, of course, “Is this a war between NATO and Russia?” And if the Russian side is correct in using the term Special Military Operation, then it is wrong to still claim that it is at war with the NATO alliance, and here’s why. Ukraine has indeed received crucial intelligence, a significant amount of equipment, and, most importantly, training for its officer corps and regular army from NATO. But if we take all of this into account and add it all up, we still won’t get even one per cent of the real capabilities of the NATO alliance. The tanks we have seen in Ukraine, both in terms of quantity and production year, are neither the latest models of Western technology nor a reflection of its true military capabilities. This seems more like the write-off of unwanted military equipment than direct involvement in the war. Admittedly, some defensive missile systems like the Patriot or offensive ones like the Himars and Storm Shadow qualify as somewhat more advanced technology, but their quantity still isn’t enough to significantly swing the tide on the front lines. Many believe Ukraine is being intentionally supplied in doses to keep the Russian army engaged, not necessarily defeat it, as part of a larger NATO strategy. The downside of this approach, of course, is the combat experience the Russian military accumulates in the meantime, which could potentially give them early victories in a hypothetical direct conflict with NATO. However, if the machinery of the most populous, powerful, and developed countries in the world were to fully engage in the war, Russia, with barely 144 million inhabitants, would not be able to withstand that blow, even if it used all its nuclear weapons. The conclusion is that it is a conflict in which there is significant involvement from NATO countries, but it is by no means a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia.
War with three winners
And finally, we come to the crucial question of this war or special military operation: Who is actually winning? We begin this part of the analysis with heartfelt respect for the hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides of this conflict.
The first winner is undoubtedly Ukraine. Regardless of the significant loss of territory, lives, and immense material damage, this country has, through superhuman efforts, definitively secured its future, whether territorially intact or in some reduced form. No matter how far the Russian onslaught goes, no matter how far their tanks reach, Ukraine and the Ukrainian people will always exist. It is true that without the support of the West, they could not endure for so long, but it is also true that the casualties on the front were exclusively Ukrainian. True, some of them were mobilized by force, but certainly not all. Thus, in this war, the Ukrainian people have demonstrated a nation-building capacity that will serve future generations well.
Russia emerges as an even greater victor in a battle de facto waged against the entire world. Moscow and Putin have demonstrated that they will not buckle even under immense pressure, achieving a significant military, economic, and even propaganda triumph. Following the events in Syria and, especially, Ukraine, they have revived the Soviet-era image of Russia’s capacity not just to wage unconventional wars against the U.S. but also to prevail. Today, across Africa and Latin America, individual states and even minor armed formations challenging the U.S. hegemony seek Russia’s support. Additionally, economic ties with China and India have never been stronger, suggesting that the Kremlin has not only evaded the Western blockade but also turned it to its advantage. These factors solidify the Kremlin’s position as a force to be reckoned with in global geopolitics, one whose value will only rise in the event of escalating conflict between Washington and Beijing. Therefore, while contemporary Russia may be a mere shadow of its Imperial and Soviet glory, it is still a tough nut to crack, seemingly unbroken by Western powers even after hundreds of years of unsuccessful attempts.
And, of course, the United States emerges as the greatest victor in this war, managing to kill two birds with one stone by provoking and pitting the two largest Slavic and Orthodox countries in the world against each other. The damage from this perspective is irreparable. Just as Serbia will never regain influence over Zagreb and Sarajevo, so too has Russia’s grip on Ukraine been severed. This has not only caused harm to the bilateral relations between the two countries but has also shattered the concept of Pan-Slavism at its theoretical epicentre. What remains of Ukraine (and a significant part will undoubtedly remain) will either move towards complete ecclesiastical unity with the Vatican (Uniatism), or, even more alarmingly, attempt to challenge the dominance of the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox Slavic world with the support of the Greek Church. The U.S. stands as an economic victor too, having successfully curtailed Germany’s energy options and, as an alternative, practically forcing them to buy their compressed gas at a price significantly higher than what they paid for Russian gas. Additionally, they have managed to shove Finland and Sweden into NATO through the back door, while also fully militarizing Poland and Lithuania as the next line of defence. Furthermore, they likely see an opportunity to directly intervene in Moldova and Georgia in the near future.
The only weakness in their potential shining victory could be the fact that, in poker terms, they are playing with all the chips in one hand. Similar to the ongoing challenge of 10 million Israelis attempting to subdue hundreds of millions of Arabs through terror, the 300 million Americans seek to maintain the obedience of the remaining seven billion people worldwide through fear. Israel’s international reputation has plummeted due to the killing of 21,000 Palestinians, injuring over 50,000 of them, and the destruction of much of the Gaza Strip. The doctrine of the Israeli military as a formidable force is collapsing, and if the same happens with the United States, it could be perilous for them in the long run.
If Russia continues to stand firm, every defeat in each war-torn village on the periphery of the former USSR will be perceived as a direct defeat for the United States, which is a catastrophe in itself. For years, the U.S. has governed the world primarily through fear and the myth of invincibility. If this prevailing myth and fear disappear, Washington could fall into the hands of barbarians much faster than Rome fell to the Visigoths.
*Dejan Azeski is a Macedonian historian, journalist