They are fighting more effectively at night than their Russian counterparts, U.S. officials say.
They are using American-made Bradley fighting vehicles to destroy Russian armor with anti-tank missiles. And they are deploying combined arms tactics — synchronized attacks by infantry, armor and artillery forces — that they learned from American and other Western troops.
It is, finally, showtime for the 36,000 Ukrainian soldiers — nine brigades — that have been armed, equipped and trained outside of Ukraine over the past several months by the United States and its NATO allies.
How these Western-trained troops perform over the next few months, military experts say, will help determine the success of Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive to push Russian forces out of occupied territory. Their performance will also demonstrate whether the tens of billions of dollars in weapons that Ukraine has received from its allies, including $40 billion from the Biden administration, is managing to transform the Ukrainian military into a NATO-standard fighting force.
Biden administration officials are hoping the nine brigades will show that the American way of warfare — using combined arms, synchronized tactics and regiments with empowered senior enlisted soldiers — is superior to the rigidly centralized command-structure that is the Russian approach.
But the going has been slow for Ukraine, and even proponents of the American way acknowledge that the beginning of the counteroffensive has not yet provided any swift breakthroughs like the Ukrainian military’s one-week retaking of Kharkiv last fall.
“This is the hardest part of the counteroffensive for the Ukrainian military, and it’s also the stage where Russian forces are able to bring their remaining advantages in artillery and air support,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “If the Ukrainians are able to breach, then the dynamics could shift.”
Ukrainian troops have had some small successes, breaking through a first line of Russian defenses and reclaiming several villages. But they have lost some of their newest Western tanks and armored vehicles, and both sides have suffered a high number of casualties, according to a British intelligence report.
“This is very hard work,” said Frederick B. Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former top U.S. Army commander in Europe. But, he added, “That’s what they’ve been training to do for many months.”
The early stages of the training focused on specific weapons systems supplied by the United States, such as the howitzer. Conducted by the 7th Army Training Command in Germany, the sessions included classroom instruction and field work that began with small squads and later involved larger units, culminating in more complex combat exercises bringing entire battalions and headquarters together.
Other countries, including Britain, Germany and Spain, have also trained Ukrainian brigades for the counteroffensive.
The bulk of the nine Ukrainian brigades has yet to be committed to the fight, but the vanguard of that main assault force is already making its mark.
Pentagon officials and military analysts say Ukraine has gained an advantage by fighting at night. Using night-vision optics, Bradleys and German-supplied Leopard tanks can identify and attack Russian targets in darkness at longer ranges than the Russians.
The difference is even more acute now that Russia is using older, less capable tanks after many of its newer, more advanced versions were destroyed in earlier battles, analysts said.
Ukraine has reinforced the new units with battle-hardened battalions as they prepare to maneuver through Russian minefields and breach other heavily fortified defenses. As part of their weekslong training, soldiers in the brigades briefly rotated into frontline combat units before their entire units deployed.
Ukraine does not discuss military losses, but the battlefield conditions pose a serious challenge for the Ukrainian troops. Russian forces have built a network of minefields, tank traps and other defenses, and the flat terrain, with little cover along much of the southern front, leaves the advancing forces vulnerable to Russian artillery.
In the early days of the counteroffensive, several Bradley fighting vehicles and German Leopard tanks were abandoned by Ukrainian troops or destroyed by Russian forces, based on videos and photographs posted online by bloggers and verified by The New York Times. But the Ukrainian tank crews have generally survived the attacks, and many of the damaged Bradleys and Leopards can be recovered and repaired, U.S. and Ukrainian officials say.
“The Bradleys and Leopards are performing well,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a former U.S. Marine officer. “They’re more survivable than the other options Ukraine had. Ukrainian soldiers can be more confident in future battles knowing they’re more likely to survive.”
Ukrainian troops have broken through initial fighting positions along a part of the front and continue to look for Russian vulnerabilities, but they remain several miles from Russia’s main defensive lines. The Russians are waiting to see if the Ukrainians make significant advances before making major movements or adjustments, U.S. officials and military analysts said.
Ukrainian forces have already faced minefields, trenches, anti-tank ditches, air assaults and artillery fire. Bad weather last week, which made muddy fields impassable for heavy armored vehicles, has also hampered both militaries’ efforts, officials said.
For the newly trained troops, speed will be of paramount importance. “They need to keep moving, because the slower they go, the more exposed they are,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
For more than a year, Biden administration officials tried to keep facets of the training secret, for fear of providing fuel to the idea that it is the United States, and not Ukraine, that is at war with Russia.
In January, the administration allowed reporters to watch portions of the training in Grafenwöhr, Germany, but they could only follow Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and watch his interactions with Ukrainian and U.S. troops and commanders. They were not permitted to report specific conversations between General Milley and Ukrainian forces, or take photos or video.
On the day he visited, officials said, General Milley exhorted Ukrainian troops to defend their country. As he met with commanders, he said that “this is one of those moments in time where if you want to make a difference, this is it.”
Ukraine is counting on the brigades to help break through Russian defenses, regain some of the nearly 20 percent of the country the Russians occupy, and possibly sever the land bridge connecting Russia to the strategically important Crimea Peninsula.
One Pentagon official said that a lot of training involved teaching Ukrainian troops how to go on the offensive, rather than stay on defense. For years, Ukrainian troops have worked on defensive tactics as Russian-backed separatists launched attacks in eastern Ukraine. When Moscow launched its full-scale invasion last year, Ukrainian troops put their defensive operations into play, denying Russia the swift victory it had anticipated.
If the counteroffensive stalls and the conflict turns into a prolonged insurgency, there are questions about whether Western countries will continue supporting Ukraine at current levels of military aid. Upcoming elections in some of those countries, particularly the United States, pose another potential pitfall for future support.
But if Ukraine can muster a series of tactical victories and string them into successive pivot points, Kyiv might be able to force Moscow’s hand at the negotiation table, U.S. officials say.
“Ukraine’s success in the counteroffensive would do two things,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in Washington last week. “It would strengthen its position at any negotiated table that emerges, and it may have the effect as well of actually causing Putin to finally focus on negotiating an end to the war that he started.”