Ukraine's tactical switch could make it even harder for an already struggling Russia to make any progress in the war

  • Ukraine is investing millions in new defensive fortifications.

  • That will make it even harder for Russia to get any victories, an expert told Business Insider.

  • Attacking has been harder than defending in this war, so Ukraine has a new advantage.

A tactical shift by Ukraine will likely make it even harder for Russia to gain new territory in its invasion, an expert told Business Insider.

Ukraine last month announced it was investing nearly $500 million to build fortifications. The New York Times reported these would be along its Russian border and in the eastern Donbas region.

Riley Bailey, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told BI that Ukraine’s defenses will make it “harder for Russian forces to attack head on into entrenched fortified positions. They have already shown routine difficulty in doing this.”

The problem for Russia is that it is more difficult in this war to attack an area than to defend it. Russia has already struggled to make progress, and these fortifications will likely make its goals even harder to reach.

Attacking is hard in Ukraine

Offense is often harder than defense in land warfare, but experts said that’s particularly true in this conflict. That’s at least partly due to flat terrain and the huge number of drones in the sky, making surprise all but impossible, Bailey previously told BI.

A Ukrainian soldier holds a gun as he walks through a brown field with "Dragon's teeth" concrete triangles and barbed wire behind him

A Ukrainian military engineer with the call sign “Lizard” walks near fortifications outside Kupiansk, Ukraine, in December 2023.REUTERS/Thomas Peter TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Patrick Bury, a military analyst at the UK’s University of Bath, previously told BI that defense has been easier because both countries have similar weaponry and both struggle with weapons shortages.

He said while it might be different if more NATO weaponry was involved, “defense seems to be in the ascendancy, certainly between these two militaries.”

Other experts agreed, arguing Ukraine needs more advanced weaponry to break through.

Ukraine struggled to make major progress in its counteroffensive last summer after Russia spent months laying defenses like mines, dragon’s teeth, and trenches. It frustrated advanced Ukrainian weaponry like tanks.

Russia has struggled

However, Russia had struggled to seize new territory.

It first failed to capture the capital, Kyiv, and then concentrated its efforts in the east. Despite its manpower and artillery advantage, it made almost no progress in its winter 2022 offensive and hasn’t landed any big victories in the new offensive push it started in October.

Russian vehicles in a field smoke with a big explosion

Hits on Russian vehicles in the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka in October 2023.110th Separate Mechanized Brigade

The extra fortifications will now make Russian decision-making harder, Bailey said. Without deep Ukrainian defenses in place, Russia could push forward after capturing a location. But a stronger defensive line stops that, limiting where it can go even after a victory.

It will likely have Russia questioning “how do we move forward to capture territory,” Bailey said.

William Alberque, who runs the arms control program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told BI that “Ukraine has done better on offensives than Russia has done in general. Russia has done much worse in general.”

But Ukraine now is short on ammunition and weaponry, and Russia has significantly more firepower.

A Ukrainian lieutenant said this harms his soldiers’ ability to attack: “Now, we don’t have enough equipment, enough people to go on the offensive.”

“So the main goal, for now, is to hold the position we have.”

Ukraine still fighting

Ukraine doesn’t want to give up on its goal of retaking territory, Bailey said: “I don’t think this is an indication that Ukraine intends to be on the defense for long.”

Ukrainian officials said they want another counteroffensive this year.

The limiting factor, Bailey said, is what weaponry Ukraine can get from allies.

But when it does launch a big attack, “these defensive positions offer a favorable position from which to launch such operations.”

Alberque said: “Ukraine needs to create these defensive lines just in case and to create traps where possible to destroy as much Russian offensive capability as possible and then hit back somewhere.”

The fortifications could free Ukrainian soldiers to do things like training, Jack Watling, a land warfare expert, told Reuters.

Other experts agree. Ukraine doesn’t seem to be giving up on attacking. One said Ukraine’s goal is likely “active defense,” where it still attacks while holding defensive lines, seeking Russian weak spots.

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