Watching the leaves change color and fall is a joy in parts of the northern hemisphere. In Ukraine this year, it is a matter of life and death.
Why? Because much of the Southern Ukrainian battlefield is flat and open, with dense forests sprinkled into the landscape. Large fields are separated by treelines. And treelines and forests are where the Russian army has dug its forward defenses, while tree cover hides supporting arms including tanks and artillery.
The leaves of 2022 protected the Ukrainians from the Russian onslaught. In the summer of 2023, the leaves gave the Russians protection from Ukrainian precision artillery strikes and drones. Now, the leaves are falling or being blown away. Increasingly, Russian positions are exposed.
War is far more practical than the international relations theories of political science suggest, almost as hands-on as carpentry or medieval brewing, and external factors matter.
The Russian obfuscation doctrine, an adaptation to Ukraine’s increased use of precision firepower, relies on a single factor — an eternal summer providing a thicket of protective leaves above. But nature has something else in store; the fall, the coming winter, and with it storms and snow. Once the leaves fall, the protection vanishes.
Then, within a few days or weeks, the ground surface will be exposed for drones and remote sensing and mapping; enabling rapid targeting of Russian assets on the ground.
The Ukrainians have also started to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to scan large amounts of imagery and so identify objects with specific forms, such as rectangular features with specific width and length ratios, so revealing Russian trucks and tanks for targeting.
Once the leaves fall and the ground is covered with a thin layer of snow, with mud that cuts through the snow, anyone walking or driving a tracked vehicle will be detected by AI. What will it do? Properly designed AI will browse enormous amounts of imagery and find objects within the images, or changes revealing activity or the lack of it.
Compare a trench network over time and imagery from different times during the day and weather, and AI will be able to reveal what part is defended, by how many men, and the sites of hardened areas in the trench system. These algorithms are nothing you can buy in a box; they are custom-made, and the prototypes are already being tested along the front.
Russia has adapted to losses suffered in the early months. Having lost huge numbers of tanks and artillery close to the line of contact (known losses include more than 2,300 tanks and more than 1,000 artillery pieces), commanders learned to pull back their heavy guns and armored vehicles, to build smaller command posts and tactical supply dumps and hide these assets under foliage and in buildings several kilometers behind the front line. The tanks only move forward when needed to stop a Ukrainian advance or are used for indirect fire, and the artillery is so far back that their range barely covers the front.
It was different in February last year and through the year 2022. The war in Ukraine started as a 1980s Cold War reenactment with only one major difference — the Warsaw Pact was fighting the Warsaw Pact.
The Russian attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian government with an airborne assault on Hostomel airfield on the first day was straight out of Cold War Soviet doctrine (the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia began with the seizure of Prague airport by paratroopers and the swift capture of Alexander Dubček.) But in Ukraine, the airborne troops (VDV) failed to rapidly secure the airfield and its perimeter to allow the full airborne force — already in the air — to land and race into Kyiv and the government quarter.
This initial failure indicated to me and others that this Russian invasion was not going according to plan. That assessment was correct. For a year, the Kremlin’s generals followed the Cold War doctrine, making their behavior predictable and their losses appallingly high. After the initial failures in the battles for Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson, the war entered a new stage. They were forced to adapt and limit the impact of the Ukrainians’ newly acquired capabilities, such as HIMARS, modern 155 mm artillery, and improved intelligence gathering.
For the first time in a century, the Russians shifted tactics. Historically, the Kremlin’s generals have relied on massive artillery barrages to suppress the enemy, creating chaos and disruption in the rear, paving the way for a massive breakthrough of armor and encirclement. The Ukrainian slow-but-steady degradation of the Russian artillery did not happen overnight; it has been going on for more than a year.
Even though the Ukrainians received M777 American 155 mm artillery quite early on, along with other Western equipment, it took some months for all the pieces to come together – it takes time to learn target acquisition, fire command, the use of precision shells, and survival skills to avoid Russian counter-battery fire.
By winter 2022/2023, the Ukrainian artillery had gained skills and experience through on-the-job training to start systematically hunting Russian artillery. The devastating effects have been chronicled (I particularly recommend this Daily Kos article) to describe the rapid evolution of the artillery’s role. Not only has Russia lost enormous numbers of guns, but large numbers of its skilled artillerymen are dead and its operational doctrine is shredded. Its artillery units are often unable to respond to Ukrainian opponents that hit them and relocate within minutes.
The generals have tried to respond by having the infantry dig in along the line of contact. Some of these tree lines have evaporated through extensive artillery barrages to piles of split wood and tree branches, with flattened and destroyed villages behind them. The primary mission for the infantry on the contact line was to try to survive and then engage the Ukrainians when they pushed forward. These forward trenches and shelters have been exposed to artillery, snipers, and drones, but many have withstood the pressure.
The Russian counter-attack force, the artillery, and the logistic chain are all hidden in treelines, urban, and forested areas 8km–15km (5-9 miles) behind the front, ready to strike and support when needed.
The change in the weather will reveal things the Russians would rather keep hidden. AI systems (mentioned above) will help but so will drones — the Ukrainians will instantly see which are in use (these trenches will be a dark string on a snowy white background seen from above) and which are not. Abandoned or unmanned trenches will have snowy white surroundings and trench bottoms. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the consequences. Modern remote sensing and image analysis, especially AI-supported to cut time in the kill chain, can rapidly determine the Russian forces’ actual state and disposition.
The general assumption has been that the Ukrainians need to conclude their offensive movement before the snow and the winter. We should instead see the snow, the winter, and the absence of leaves as an opportunity.
The Russian soldiers at the front can dig in and protect themselves, but logistic trucks still need to drive in daily. Russian tanks, tents, supply piles, fuel dumps, and more significant military reserves will be above ground, and far easier to target once the foliage is gone and everything is visible. Being above ground leaves these units and resources extremely vulnerable to long-range fires such as HIMARS.
When the whole array of Russian tactical adaptions is exposed, it can quickly become a crescendo of lethality — if Western nations hold their nerve and ship precision ammunition to strike all these newly surfaced Russian targets.
The Ukrainians have learned how to target and deliver destructive force quickly and precisely, and when the stage curtain rises, and everything is visible, it is essential to be ready and use the four-to-five-week time window to set conditions for continued and extended liberation of occupied territory. (Speed is essential because the Russians will adapt again.) This offers a chance to inflict brutal casualties on the invading force and batter its morale in the process.
As long as the Western allies continued to deliver high-end precision ammunition, the destruction of the Russian forces could again reach levels that make the Russian war effort unsustainable. We should also remember that every Russian tank and artillery piece destroyed is one less to threaten the rest of Europe.
When the leaves fall, targeting becomes less about guesswork and more about lethality. It is the Ukrainians’ turn to deliver destructive force at a larger scale. It will be hard for Russian troops to avoid.
They have reason to fear as the leaves fall to earth.
Jan Kallberg, Ph.D., LL.M., is a Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Dr. Kallberg is a former US Army Cyber Institute research scientist. He has taught at the United States Military Academy (West Point), New York University, and George Washington University. Follow him at cyberdefense.com and @Cyberdefensecom.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.