Ukraine's Counter-Offensive: Setting Expectations
In a recent blog for Foreign Affairs I argued that even as Putin’s original objectives drift out of reach another objective takes over - that of ‘not losing’, for with losing comes the reckoning. Failure is measured not only in the objectives that will forever stay unmet, but the casualties and costs accumulated during the course of the war, and the damage to Russia’s standing as a great power and Putin’s position as a competent leader.
The consequences of Putin’s determination to avoid loss have been heavy for Ukraine as well as Russia. A futile war has continued and will only stop when Putin, or a successor, recognises the failure. Because he lacks a convincing victory Putin has instead sought to coerce Ukraine into capitulation, first by attacking its critical infrastructure and now its grain exports. None of this has led to a more conciliatory attitude in Kyiv. If anything it has had the opposite effect. At most it may give Putin some malign comfort that Ukrainians are being harshly punished for refusing to join his dominion and an opportunity to remove a competitor in agricultural trade. He has spoken positively about how shortages allow Russian grain exporters to charge more.
Why an offensive is both necessary and difficult.
What will it take to persuade the Kremlin of the futility of this war? Ukraine has shown resilience in the face of attacks on its society and economy and despite gloomy prognostications to the contrary, support from NATO countries and others has not fallen away. It has shown through various means that Russian assets can be attacked, including the bridge link to Crimea. The most compelling message it can send, however, depends on its armed forces liberating territory. Success in battle can have knock on effects elsewhere. All Putin’s other worries - about the economy, public opinion, and the state of his armed forces - become more serious if there are further military setbacks. This is why so much was invested by Ukraine’s supporters in training and equipping new brigades - reportedly about 63,000 Ukrainian troops and more than 150 modern battle tanks, along with many older tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. This is why so much now rides on the success of the offensive they have made possible.
Will this investment pay off? In a war in which both sides have struggled against determined defences it has always been unclear what could realistically be achieved and over what time. Prior to this offensive getting underway expectations were raised up and down. Now it has been going for almost two months observers are still unsure what to make of it. Ukraine has had to adjust its tactics after initial setbacks, so that we are now assessing progress against different criteria than were in place when it began.
I found it salutary to look back at what I wrote a year ago (13 August 2022). when Ukraine had also embarked on offensive operations, this time against Russian positions in Kherson, which had also yet to show much progress. As this followed a Russian offensive in which they had made only limited headway in the Donbas, the overall impression was of a developing stalemate, with defence confirmed as the stronger form of warfare and the strategies adopted by both sides, by necessity, attritional.
I noted that because attritional wars can only be won if the enemy army collapses through depletion and exhaustion, generals prefer to win through manoeuvre, involving bold offences that lead to territory being seized and a victory imposed. This was much to be preferred to waiting for the enemy to give up. Attrition therefore tended to get
‘disparaged as an inferior and undesirable form of warfare, requiring patience and an ability to absorb pain, without necessarily offering a plausible route to victory.’
Yet, I argued, while attrition lacked ‘dash and drama’, it could still lead to victory, by creating the conditions for manoeuvre warfare or by forcing the enemy to recognize that its position could only get worse. ‘Moreover’, I added, ‘there are different ways of fighting an attritional war, and some strategies can be more effective than others.’
Not long after this post, Ukraine achieved an effective advance, not in Kherson but in Kharkiv, where the Russians had thinned out their forces in order to reinforce their positions in Kherson. Very quickly the Russians lost a lot of ground and for a moment their war effort appeared to be wobbling.
At this point I was optimistic that Putin might move to cut his losses by finding a way to end the war. Instead he doubled down, resorting to mass mobilization to address the shortages of troops at the front and, claiming four Ukrainian oblasts for the Russian Federation, in addition to Crimea. From that moment on it became even harder than before to imagine a negotiated settlement. This demand that these territories be recognized as Russian has been re-iterated at every meeting with well-meaning delegations on peace missions. This is why these initiatives have faltered before they have had a chance to get going. Only when this demand is abandoned might we suspect that he is looking for a way out.
A stalemate suits Putin no more than Zelensky. At the start of this year he ordered a winter offensive. This not only achieved little but exposed divisions among the Russian military. Notably Yevgeny Prigozhin complained that his Wagner group, which had the capture of the devastated city of Bakhmut to its credit, had been let down by the leadership of the Ministry of Defence which kept on pushing forces into futile ‘meat-grinding’ assaults. This led to Prigozhin’s brief and curious mutiny, taking Wagner out of the equation, at least for now, and destabilizing Russia’s high command. As the Russian offensive ran out of steam it was Ukraine’s turn to take the initiative.
Ukraine’s offensive was launched on 4 June. It was soon apparent that the attempt to achieve an early breakthrough had failed. This has led to a number of post-mortems on what went wrong.
The problems faced were not surprising. Russian defences in the south are extensive and were never going to be easy to breach. They were well designed. NATO would wish to pummel such defences in advance using airpower, but that was not an option available to Ukraine. Nor did they have sufficient equipment for de-mining purposes. These were known problems that turned out to be as limiting as feared. They were aggravated by a lack of close coordination between advancing units and the artillery required to suppress defences. Once vehicles were disabled at the front of a column those stuck behind were targeted by Russian fire, whether from artillery, anti-tank missiles, attack helicopters or drones. All of this was not helped by unusually rainy weather which kept the ground boggy and hampered mobility.
As the Economist noted it was possibly never realistic to expect brigades ‘put together in a hurry with unfamiliar equipment’ and with barely a month of training, to be proficient when it came to ‘co-ordinating complex attacks involving multiple units using different sorts of weapons.’ Ukrainians are working not only with many different types of equipment, each with their own operational and maintenance issues, but also different philosophies. This is an army with strong Soviet roots, that learned to adapt after the Russian enclaves were forged in 2014, and then grew quickly after the full-scale invasion of February 2022. But any of its most professional soldiers were lost in the intense fighting of the first three months of the war, and those that survived are pretty exhausted by now. These points were emphasised in another Economist piece, reflecting on a recent visit to the frontlines, Mike Kofman and Frans-Stefan Gady stress the difficulties the Ukrainians faced fighting in a combined-arms fashion at scale, largely because of deficiencies in training and experience.
‘Ukrainian soldiers’ ability to master Western tech quickly led to misplaced optimism that the time it takes to develop cohesive fighting units could be short-circuited. Putting these units in the vanguard of a difficult assault, instead of more experienced formations, now looks like a mistake that reflected the prioritisation of Western kit over time in the field.’
Even if been better prepared, the lack of key capabilities would have hampered Ukrainian advances. Kofman and Gady argue that remedying these deficiencies requires better equipment and more time. The focus should not be encouraging Ukraine to follow best Western practice but to help it ‘fight the way it fights best’ – which means accepting the logic of attrition.
Beyond the manoeuvre/attrition dichotomy
I agree with the analysis but would take it a bit further. Perhaps we have become too mesmerized by the manoeuvre/attrition dichotomy. It came to the fore in US military discourse in the 1980s when some theorists were lamenting a decline in the art of generalship and over reliance on firepower. Instead of preparing for intensive artillery exchanges they wanted to encourage imaginative and decisive operations that could bring wars to an end quickly at low cost. They had in mind German type blitzkriegs, which used speed to bypass the enemy’s strongest positions and catch them by surprise. With new technologies the possibilities for such operations appeared to grow. After the Iraqi army was roundly defeated in February 1991, enthusiastic theorists started to describe forms of warfare based on exceptional situational awareness combined with precision weapons, fired from a distance, and marked by swift, audacious moves that would leave the enemy discombobulated and in disarray.
Manoeuvre, therefore, did not simply mean covering a lot of ground quickly, for that can happen when there are few enemy positions in the way. It required bringing together the whole suite of advanced technologies to defeat the enemy rapidly in such a way as to minimize casualties. There was always a degree of mythology in this. The US successes in the conventional stages of recent wars were as much the result of superior firepower as superior manoeuvre. Enemy forces could not cope with the fire directed at them, whether from air strikes, cruise missiles, artillery or tanks. During the 1991 Gulf War Iraqi forces had already given up and fled the scene by the time the great ‘left hook’ manoeuvre had been completed.
As the Russians found in February 2022, catching the enemy by surprise and advancing quickly does not guarantee on early victory, and once the enemy has had a chance to compose itself and adapt then an anticipated triumph can soon turn into a long hard slog. The war becomes a test of endurance. When it started to be used to describe a distinctive strategy in the run up to and during the First World War, attrition was about accepting that the victor would be the side that could outlast the other when it came to coping with the costs and calamities of war. It became a default strategy when decisive battlefield successes seemed elusive.
Unsurprisingly it led to a search for new ways to achieve battlefield success, focused after 1918 on the potential of the tank. This line of strategic thinking remains influential, especially as it suggest the potential for keeping the number of casualties down. But if the enemy has sufficient firepower, any advance risks casualties and equipment losses. ‘Attrition’ describes what regularly happens in war. It is not really a type of war or a distinctive strategy. Even the cleverest manoeuvres do not preclude attrition in the short-term. And if they fail to achieve decisive victories the likely consequence is attrition in the long-term.
In these circumstances how can armies advance? The Russian approach is not to worry too much about casualties, especially those troops, such as convicts or poorly-prepared ‘mobiks’, deemed expendable. Russian offensives since the first month of the war have largely involved trying to break into urban areas and then moving forward methodically, through the rubble of its own creation, pushing hapless disposable troops against Ukrainian positions in order to expose them. The defenders could then be hammered with artillery until they were forced to withdraw. This not only took time and destroyed the areas being taken, but led to troop shortages, which is why the issue of further mobilization is once again under consideration in Moscow. This is not an option for the Ukrainians. They want to limit their casualties and avoid urban warfare.
The basic problem is that all large formations are vulnerable once spotted, and with numerous drones flying overhead the risk of being spotted is high, and once a unit is caught by obstacles, including mines, the vulnerability is even greater. After the early June setback, the Ukrainians went back to relying, as so often the case in this war, on actions more at platoon and company level, with small groups of soldiers rushing from one tree line to another, or creeping forward to clear a way through a minefield. In this they have been helped by the far better protection provided by Western vehicles compared to old Soviet systems, which reduce casualties even when vehicles are struck.
Russian forces have adapted in a similar way, if only to prevent Ukrainians consolidating even limited gains. They have sought to reverse any Ukrainian gain. The challenge for units from either side moving forward has been to find positions with some cover that can be held against enemy counters. It rarely makes sense to stop in an open field. This explains the ebb and flow of the front lines of recent weeks as small settlements regularly change hands. One difficulty with fighting this way is that it can disrupt the chain of command, because of the responsibility this puts on junior officers, so that it then can make coordination between different units and scaling up to take advantage of any opportunities for rapid movement.
The American approach is to get your attrition in first, by taking out the bulk of enemy capabilities before the armies start moving. Ukraine lacked that option. There is too much Russian firepower in the way for it to be eliminated, but can take out as much as possible, especially artillery pieces and their support systems. If ammunition dumps become vulnerable at the rear they have to be held even further back. The more the front line advances the greater the supply challenge can become.
Ukraine has a qualitative (though not quantitative) advantage in artillery. Since they first received US HIMARS last summer, and more recently, the UK Storm Shadow cruise missiles, followed by the French equivalent, they have been putting a lot of effort into counter-battery fire and messing generally with Russian logistics. Anecdotal evidence, including from Russian bloggers, suggests that this campaign has had some success, which has not removed the danger but may create gaps in Russia’s ability to cover the front line.
Can Ukraine now advance?
I noted in a previous post, drawing on the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff, that Ukraine’s strategy could usefully be described as ‘starve, stretch and strike,’ with starve referring to the regular attacks on Russian logistics and command structures, and stretch to the ‘multiple axes being probed and feints by Ukraine.’ Strike would be the moment when the rest of the fresh brigades, would be pushed forward and the real counter-offensive could start in earnest. This requires attacks in multiple areas across the long front lines, trying to find ways to dismantle mine fields to get closer to the enemy’s main defensive line, limiting the impact of their artillery, while also requiring Russian forces to commit their reserves so that they would struggle to respond in numbers once a breakthrough was achieved.
The importance of stretch can be seen in the interaction between the two main areas in contention (more may develop) – in the east, particularly around Bakhmut, and in the south moving towards the sea from Zaporizhia. This is similar to a year ago, when the main effort was directed against Kherson, which was strategically more important, though the most exploitable Russian vulnerabilities were found to the northeast in Kharkiv.
Bakhmut and the wider Donbas area is important to Russia. It was the main focus of their earlier offensive. They are still committing substantial resources to holding on occupied areas and even extending them. Because Bakhmut matters so much to Moscow it has come to matter to Kyiv, and they have been making steady progress to make it harder for the Russian to hold the city although they are some way from encircling it. The Russians also took an opportunity to distract the Ukrainians by undertaking a mini-offensive of their own when Ukrainian forces were rotated in one area and less experienced troops came in. The Russians advanced a few kilometres though they had insufficient combat power to take it much further and no obvious objective to take and hold. The Ukrainians now claim to have stabilized this situation, but this is another example of the fluidity of the battlefield.
The south is more important to Ukraine’s objectives, not least because of the possibility of isolating Crimea. Unfortunately this is where Russian defences are at their most formidable and where the initial Ukrainian offensive faltered. Last Wednesday evening the New York Times, quoting anonymous US officials, suggested that the moment of ‘strike’ had come. Then equally anonymous officials talking to the Washington Post seemed less sure. What was agreed is that Ukraine’s is that a new brigade had been brought into the action, taking some of the pressure of the brigade that had borne the brunt of the fighting, and looking to take advantage of a perceived weakness in the Russian lines at this point. By Thursday the New York Times had modified its view. Other American officials were saying that the most recent Ukrainian attack might be preparatory operations for the main thrust or reinforcements to replenish war-weary units.
The problem might not only be officials and journalists getting ahead of themselves but the assumption that any major new development had to be assessed as an example of manoeuvre warfare. The Institute for the Study of War Tweeted:
Western officials are unhelpfully raising expectations for rapid and dramatic Ukrainian advances that Ukrainian forces are unlikely to be able to meet, as well as offering forecasts of the likely Ukrainian avenues of advance that should probably not have been shared publicly.
It does the Ukrainians no favours to assess their military progress by the most demanding criteria. The effort to liberate territory is bound to be painful, and this will be the case not because the Ukrainian army has failed to master the art of manoeuvre. Without superiority in firepower any army would find this hard. Of course the Russian army has taken huge losses, shows many signs of wear and tear, and may not cope well should its defensive lines be breached. We may see it pull back when put under irresistible pressure, even if not along the whole front line. What is important is that Ukraine keeps the initiative, and does not exhaust itself so much that the Russians get a chance to regroup and counter-attack. Outside cheerleaders and anxious supporters should not force the pace and beware of talking up gains before we can be sure of their significance or their consolidation. That way only leads to disappointment.
This is an argument for caution not pessimism, for gearing expectations to a range of scenarios. One of the problems with the fixation on a manoeuvre strategy is that it suggests that only a decisive military victory can deliver an acceptable political outcome. It may not require the Ukrainian army to go the whole way and liberate all occupied territory for steady advances to add to the pressure on Moscow.
This war was started with a decision in Moscow and a decision in Moscow is required for it to end, because Ukraine will continue to fight under all circumstances. As we have so little insight into Kremlin deliberations we may get pleasantly surprised if a decision comes sooner than expected but we dare not suppose that one is imminent. Ukraine must be supported on the assumption that it is not. As I noted earlier the original idea of an attritional strategy was largely about how to cope with a long war, and that is the sort of strategy Ukraine needs.
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