Ukraine’s mosquito strategy highlights crucial military lessons and exposes Russia’s failures

As Russia’s war with Ukraine drags on into the sixth week, and as Moscow retreats from Kyiv, leaving hundreds of dead civilians in its wake, several immediate military lessons are becoming clearer. This is the first of three articles from a front-row seat in Ukraine.
The first of these lessons is that the old cliché got it exactly right: It is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog.
As the strategist Carl von Clausewitz reminds, there is a difference between war on paper or “ideal war” and “war in reality” – numbers and kit are not an exact gauge of capability. Fighting will is crucial, and here the Russians seem to have relearnt another lesson: Without motivation, conscripts and untrained militia are usually next to useless.
By contrast, the Ukrainians have learnt well the lessons of the 2014 war with Russian-backed forces in Donbas.
One of these has been to allow the commanders on the ground the authority to make decisions and flexibility as the circumstances demand. They are also not seeking to hold territory, but rather absorb the Russian invasion and then conduct hit-and-run attacks – the mosquito strategy – on stretched supply lines.
Read in Daily Maverick: As Russia abandons conquest of Kyiv, Putin’s strategic gamble unravels
A related lesson is that people’s defence works, if mobilised with the proper motivation and training. This was clear at the outset, when the Russians failed to quickly seize the strategic Antonov Airport just 10km from Kyiv in the first hours of the war, an engagement which infamously resulted in the destruction of the world’s largest aircraft, the Antonov An-225 Mriya. Although Russian forces eventually captured (and have subsequently abandoned) the facility, Ukrainian resistance – a combination of territorial defence, special forces and regular army – nixed Russian plans of a quick capitulation of Kyiv.
It was a metaphor for what was to come over the following weeks.
A further lesson is in the limits of tank warfare, at least against modern anti-tank weapons and a determined enemy. As one Ukrainian airborne commander reminds, however, of the foreign-supplied anti-tank weaponry: “NLAW and Javelin don’t fight by themselves. People are fighting. But the combination of unconventional tactics and hyper-precision weapons leads to amazing results.”
At the very least, tanks need infantry, a lesson the Russians have learnt at a heavy cost.
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