The Ukraine War has been revealing a growing number of developments that were surprising to those who thought they had a good idea of how a modern war between near-peer (roughly equal) forces would proceed. That was not the case and there were a lot of surprises. Some of the more surprising revelations was the extensive use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) as well as USVs (Unmanned seagoing vehicles). These unmanned systems are much cheaper than manned aircraft of ships and can be equipped with a wide variety of inexpensive payloads, including cameras, explosives and electronic systems like signal jammers that disrupt GPS accuracy and other forms of communication. Both Russians and Ukrainians have been developing these new systems and using them against each other.
On land that means you cannot hide. Cheap surveillance UAVs are everywhere all the time and reveal opportunities to use more specialized UAVs. For example, if the Ukrainians are using GPS guided weapons, Russia can send in UAVs equipped with electronic equipment that disrupts the GPS signals guided bombs require for their accuracy. This had made GPS guided weapons less reliable. At sea, the Ukrainian Sea Baby USVs have destroyed or neutralized most warships in the Russian Black Sea fleet. Ukrainian SUVs are difficult to detect and Russia has lost several warships to these remotely controlled vessels and their explosive payloads. Russian naval operations in the Black Sea have been under constant attack by Ukrainian missiles, UAVs and USVs to the point where the Russian Black Sea fleet has been damaged, destroyed or sent to more distant ports where they are no longer a threat to anyone.
This situation was not a sudden development and developed over the last year as both Russians and Ukrainians sought new ways to gain an advantage. This is one reason why, fourteen months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainians began attacking and driving the Russian forces out. This was bad news for the Russian government, which was receiving growing criticism from its citizens about not merely the war’s cost, but the need for it at all. The government responded to the internal criticism and did so more effectively than their military efforts in Ukraine. Russia declared criticism of the Russian war effort in Ukraine illegal. Some arrests were made, and some critics went on trial. This discouraged many Russian critics but emboldened others. This sort of thing is common in Russia.
Throughout most of its history, Russia has been a police state. In addition to the secret police, Russia also intercepted and read mail and overheard radio and telephone conversations. Russia mobilized support inside Russia for detecting anonymous critics and threatening them with arrest if they did not curb their criticism.
This criticism made it obvious that the Russian government was losing the support of its own people, including a growing number of senior officers who spoke out, usually via encrypted messages on Telegram, a popular cell phone app in Russia and Ukraine. Early on many of these Russian Telegram-based military bloggers or mil-bloggers supported the invasion and were supplied with information by the Russian government, including opportunities to spend some time with the troops inside Ukraine. After a few months the Russian mil-bloggers were no longer reporting the official Russian version of events in Ukraine, but what was being reported by Russian veterans of the fighting.
After Russia announced a pause in offensive military operations in early July 2022, one of these mil-bloggers, a former general who had served in occupied Donbas before the invasion, reported a different reality. He insisted that Russia had suffered higher losses in eastern Ukraine (Luhansk province) than the Ukrainians, who were conducting a classic attrition defense. The Russians had suffered far more losses in men and equipment. Ukrainians were not driven out of Luhansk but withdrew slowly and deliberately to encourage Russia to keep attacking and losing troops and combat vehicles that could not be replaced. Meanwhile the Ukrainians were receiving more weapons and equipment from NATO and forming new units, including armed resistance groups in occupied Ukraine. This was not the official Russian assessment, but it was the reality that Russian troops in Ukraine were experiencing and some Russian mil-bloggers were reporting.
All this was nothing new. When the most modern and effective Russian forces were assembled to invade Ukraine in 2022, they quickly discovered they were not facing an inept, poorly trained and armed foe but one that was far more effective than the Russian invaders. The main offensive in the north, towards the nearby Ukrainian capital Kyiv, suffered heavy losses and within weeks was forced to withdraw back to the border. Russian troops were initially told that they had encountered NATO troops who were in Ukraine preparing to invade Russia. The surviving troops knew better because all they encountered were Ukrainians, usually armed with weapons similar to what Russia used as well as more effective ones they had received from NATO. The Ukrainians used more effective tactics and some new weapons that were based on Western models but Ukrainian-made. The Russian state-controlled media was ordered to ignore reports like this and stick with the official story that this was all a secret NATO operation to attack Russia via Ukraine.
While this information war played on, the Russian ordered everything they had, short of nuclear and chemical weapons, into use in an effort to salvage the situation. Russia was at war with a near-peer opponent and losing. Many Russians, civilian and military, figured out what was happening and openly criticized, or sometimes even physically attacked, their government because of the mess in Ukraine that was killing a lot of Russian troops. These Russian critics were often well-educated professionals in regular contact with Westerners, including more than a million Russians who had left since 2014 because of fears Russia was headed for what actually happened in 2022. Several hundred thousand more departed after the 2022 invasion. Despite this, the majority of Russians accepted the government explanation that Russian was defending itself in Ukraine and that what the government called the special military operation must continue. Russia refused to call what they were doing in Ukraine as war.
This attitude eventually began to demoralize Russians who figured out that was really going on. Widows and families of the dead soldiers received little information about their dead kin and many of those eligible for death benefits from the government did not receive that money because it was stolen by corrupt officials. This is typical of the Russian government bureaucracy and further eroded popular support for the war in Ukraine.