When the Soviet Union was under threat, it sent in the tanks. In 1968, with the new government of communist Czechoslovakia pushing for liberal reforms that threatened to undermine Kremlin control, the world watched as T-54s rolled into Prague. In 1993, when the USSR finally disintegrated, the hardliners deployed their armour to the streets of Moscow in a last-ditch effort to stop the collapse.

So central to the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower was its military hardware that those in the West who defended the violent authoritarianism of Josef Stalin and his successors were given a special honorific – “tankies”. Now, though, with Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine stretching into its fifth week, the fearsome reputation of Russia’s prize weaponry appears to have fallen apart.

Long lines of burned out convoys and footage of Ukrainian farmers dragging off abandoned equipment with their tractors have defined the perception of the war in the West and seen Moscow’s military brought low in the eyes of the world. According to commanders in Kyiv, their forces have captured or destroyed at least 582 tanks, 1,664 armoured personnel carriers and another 1,144 vehicles. While the true picture of losses from both sides is impossible to know, it is clear this was not the slick show of shock and awe that had been hoped for in the Kremlin.

Instead, a comparatively small military power has demonstrated it can hold the line against one with a vast arsenal and four times the number of active troops. This is a prophetic look into a future where the battlefield arithmetic is very different to what it has been like in the past. With miscalculation or madness threatening to drag the rest of Europe into a full-blown war, the current standoff offers some insight into how destructive that would be, and how it would be fought.

Defending has got a lot easier

In 1991, the US 1st Armoured Division squared up against the Iraqi Republican Guard on Medina Ridge, outside the city of Basra, for what would prove to be a pivotal battle in the Gulf War. Despite Saddam Hussein’s forces being dug in and well-positioned on their home turf, it soon became a rout. The Americans blew up 186 tanks and 127 armoured vehicles, with just six of their own being damaged or destroyed. Their technological advantage on the ground and in the air gave them a clear edge.

Not so for Putin. Despite having more main battle tanks than any country in the world, many more advanced than Ukraine’s far smaller pool, they have almost completely failed to take and hold ground. For months, countries like the UK and US have been gearing up for a potential conflict by shipping over vast quantities of anti-tank weapons, including the British NLAW and the American-made Javelin, in addition to the surface-to-air MANPADS missiles used to down jets and helicopters. As a result, the Eastern European nation was bristling with advanced rocket launchers and ready to defend its very existence. It has done so with devastating success against an army that vastly outnumbers it in terms of heavy weapons and armour.

This is causing consternation in countries that have been betting on their large armoured land forces to win an outright showdown, like India, which is a major buyer of Russian arms. Lieutenant General VK Saxena, the former head of the country’s air defence forces wrote in recent days that the weaponry handed to Ukraine “can be a great nuisance to an attacker. These are huge killers, in the spirit of how an ant can kill an elephant.” This development changes the balance in future conflicts, where there are likely to be far fewer decisive battles and any assault could mean huge losses.

Watch out above

Air combat has always attracted romance and fear in equal measure. While the Battle of Britain in the Second World War saw pilots lionised by Winston Churchill, the years of bombings during the Blitz brought the war home to ordinary citizens in a way rarely seen before.

But what air superiority means is changing. In Ukraine, which was vastly outgunned by the Russian Air Force and saw its hangars and runways targeted by surprise rocket attacks in the first minutes of the war, Moscow is yet to truly take control of the skies. Kyiv’s top brass says they have shot down more than 100 Russian fixed-wing aircraft, while their own airmen are still flying sorties and even taking out their enemy’s best warplanes. Add this to the number of launchers trained upwards from the ground and becoming a fighter pilot looks like a more dangerous profession than almost ever before.

At the same time though, fewer are likely to be needed in the conflicts of the future. Much has been made already of the use of drones in the war, with operators in secret bunkers celebrating the destruction of Russian convoys. Ukraine has an edge in this vital theatre of war, with Turkey having provided the fearsome Bayraktar TB2s that are credited with dozens of kills. Unlike Russia’s indiscriminate unguided bombs, their laser-guided munitions mean far fewer go to waste and even a small fleet can be devastating.

Had nations like Iraq or Libya been operating similar technology during their conflicts with Western coalitions, it is impossible to see how the result would have been anything but carnage for coalition forces. With drones becoming cheaper, smaller and easier to operate, the conflicts of the future will likely see other nations getting in on the act. To boot, a new group of drone superpowers are clearly emerging, with Turkey at the front of the pack, turning the tide of wars for their allies. China, Iran and Russia all have substantial UAV programs.

Nowhere to hide for genocide

In 1941, with Nazi forces sweeping into Kyiv and taking the city from the Red Army, around 33,771 Jewish people from across the region were marched to the nearby Babi Yar ravine. There, along with local Romani communities and patients from a psychiatric hospital, they were killed and their bodies dumped into the ravine. Modern historians are dependent on stills taken by just a few official photographers granted access during the massacre and, as the Nazis retreated three years later, they exhumed the bodies, burned them and scattered their ashes to hide their crimes.

The war criminals of today will have few such chances. When Russian forces bombed a TV tower on the edge of Kyiv, next to the site of the Babi Yar ravine, the world was watching in real time. While conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have seen large amounts of content posted online by eyewitnesses, no war has ever been as widely photographed, filmed, watched and uploaded as Ukraine. An overwhelmingly online population where virtually everyone has a smartphone has become the most valuable tool for documenting the atrocities of the war.

Indeed, digital detectives and archivists have already begun compiling a comprehensive database of Russian war crimes that will help identify their perpetrators. Videos of Ukrainians hiding out in subway stations and of burning, destroyed residential buildings have given indisputable proof that Putin’s world narrative that only military targets are being bombed is false.

Likewise, a recent video appearing to show Ukrainian forces shooting captured Russian troops in the legs caused consternation online, with open source investigative outfit Bellingcat’s founder, Eliot Higgins, saying it “requires further investigation.” With a large number of volunteer troops and ideological fighters battling for their homeland, such incidents can easily happen when the chain of command fails, and have an immediate impact on how the public view the conflict from afar. This level of accountability means this behaviour is discovered and authorities have an incentive to crack down on it. Kyiv has already launched an investigation.

With regional conflicts in Europe and Central Asia threatening to pull in other nations, and a growing standoff between the West and countries like Russia, China and Iran, the risk of fighting spreading remains high. What Ukraine shows is that the wars of the future will be bloodier, less decisive and that the world will watch aghast as they unfold in real time.