Since the start of Russia’s “Special Military Operation” (SMO) against Ukraine last year, the fortunes of the war have swung back and forth. Dramatic battles around Kyiv and Mariupol and new age warfare with drones and PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) also enthralled us.
After initial gains, Russia looked set to fall back in August-September 2022. The front lines then settled into a fierce battle and stalemate.
Positions and narratives on both sides have hardened to invisible levels. Any hope of an early peace receded, along with the prospect of a political solution. It was clear that one side had to win decisively on the battlefield before there was any chance of a modus vivendi forming. That’s when the upcoming “offensive” talk began. Governments, allies, OSINT and “fans” joined the chorus.
First, they told us the Russian offensive would come in the winter after Putin announced the fall draft last September. 3,00,000 men were reported to have been drafted and we waited. The winter would melt, but there was no attack.
They told us that sometimes there would be a Ukrainian attack in winter or spring. We waited for the mud to dry and the ground to harden enough for the Ukrainian mechanized formations to handle. It’s the end of May and summer has arrived – but no offense! So, what’s the deal here? Where is the action?
Bakhmut saw plenty of slaughter. Ugledar saw the superiority of “small tricks”. But still not offensive! Some tried to trace the failed Russian attack. Others rationalize the delay in the Ukrainian invasion – waiting for the “wonderwaffe” from the West.
At first, it was about artillery – then came the hummers. Then it was about tanks. Abrams, Challengers and Leopards. Then there are the air defense platforms. The Patriots stepped in to “make a difference.” But the only difference we saw was the fall of Bakhmut after months of bravery! So, Storm Shadows were supposed to be game changers. As the patriots got hit, they started getting shot! Now, the F16s haven’t arrived yet!
According to the latest RuMoD statement, Total AFU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) losses in the southern Donetsk direction are more than 1,500 Ukrainian soldiers, 28 tanks, including 8 FRG-made Leopard tanks, three French-made AMX-10 wheeled tanks, and 109 armored fighting vehicles.
An invasion, whether Russian or Ukrainian, is subject to certain time-tested military factors. The target, what benefit would the attack attempt provide, and where (geographically) would it be aimed? Next, “Meaning.” The quantity and quality of resources needed to bring about those benefits. A ‘theory’ of marrying ends with means. This will lead to an actionable strategy that translates into a campaign plan. These must be studied in terms of the enemy’s intentions, rational priorities, and resources.
Last year Russia did its “invasion” and blew it! Well, they got east and south position. They secured access to the Crimea for the time being, and they had a kind of revenge against the far-right organizations that affected the Russophiles in these regions—the Azov Regiment, for example.
Russia lacked the numbers to begin with, and its doctrine did not favor the “Iraq model.” Russia also underestimated Ukraine’s determination on the field. Through conflicts between ages rather than wars of maneuver, Russia demonstrated success in long campaigns, trading space for time, bleeding the enemy, and then strategic depth.
One-off events such as the Soviet Union’s Operation Bagration in June 1944 may not be the right example in this context. By the summer of 1944, Germany was covered in blood. The Western Allies had opened multiple fronts. German industry was subjected to continuous bombing.
Against this backdrop, the Soviet Army crushed the German Army Group Center in a massive offensive. In less than a month, the AGC lost 28 of its 40 divisions! Over the next few months, the enemy was driven from most of the Soviet Union.
Similarly, in the Cold War, the world did not get a chance to test the effectiveness of a Soviet campaign. This time, Russia doesn’t have the numbers to give Russia another go in 2023 after unexpectedly significant losses in men and equipment a year ago.
After last year’s losses, Russia has so far managed to recruit and induct 417,000 new people. 3,00,000 through last spring’s draft and 5,21,000 this year through contracted volunteers (according to the Russian Ministry of Defense). Some sources estimate that 117,000 of these are already on board. So how do Shoigu and the Russian General Staff plan to use them?
First, front line units need to be brought back to strength to make up for the depletion. Then came operational reserves for defense and attack. Besting last year’s attrition at Armor posed a huge challenge. Until recently, Russia’s only AFV production complex – Uralvagonzavod – could produce 160 tanks per year. The loss in 2022 is much more than that!
Russia watchers claim that production capacity expanded rapidly last year. Ambitious claims peg 600 new tanks by May. That is nine times the old production rate! Did Russia do it? Meanwhile, they released old tanks from the Cold War era. Presumably, these will be used not as battle tanks, but in other combat roles, such as self-propelled guns, personnel & ammunition carriers, etc.
If Russia commits itself to an attack in one region, with all its new forces, it runs the following risks- Ukraine absorbs the shock like last year, launches an attack, and then moves into another chosen region. There is no escape for Russia. According to military and political logic, Ukraine is likely to make a play for the Azov coastal region and then Crimea. They’ll be all too happy to let Russia bleed out once more, then leather hell on the coast.
Therefore, Russia did not force Ukraine! Instead, they took the risk of handing over the military initiative to the NATO-backed Ukrainian army. Now, why would Russia do such a thing? In a Spanish bullfight, the matador waves a red cape and the bull mistakes it and gets his horns caught! Then the matador plunges his spear into the flanks of the beast!
If Russia is wary of numbers, Ukraine is even more so! Ukraine has also suffered heavy losses in the last 15 months. Their manpower pool is more limited. The new weapons they receive from NATO are not significant in number.
These should be better in terms of quality and features. But there are no magical weapons on the battlefield. These have complex maintenance and operating parameters. Above all, they are all vulnerable to a determined enemy and its enhancements.
Over the past few months, Ukraine has watched anxiously as the Russian military receives Hummers, Patriots, and Storm Shadows. So, what would be the likely outcome of a Ukrainian “aggression”?
As Russia retreated from Kherson and abandoned big-ticket tactics, they spent their time and resources shaping the battlefield—Ugledar, Soledar, and then Wagner’s epic battle for Bakhmut. Now talking about attacking Avdivka. Small sub-areas such as hinges on long front doors. They were fighting high casualty wars.
My analysis of the situation concludes that Ukraine is waiting to commit its forces and reserves to an attack (similar to the bull and matador metaphor above) before the Russians move. Ukraine’s most likely moves have been pretty clear for some time. First, a feeling for any handy town or city in mainland Russia (like their Belgorod antics).
Through these, they hope to attract Russian reserves from the south. They would take their chances against the depleted Russian forces anywhere in the center of gravity at Zaporizhia between Kherson and Bakhmut. As a compelling threat to Russia’s lines of communication to the mainland, Ukraine may be tempted to make a secondary effort in the Bakhmut region, threatening to push south.
If Russia was able to marshal its resources and conserve reserves by the time Ukraine made these moves, their countermoves might look like the map below.
The assumptions behind the above are that Ukraine is at the bottom of its pool of trained, combat-ready manpower. If they build up their reserves and Russia manages to destroy those formations, Ukraine won’t have much left to fight elsewhere – any other front where Russia has achieved its coup d’état!
An example is the German “Spring (Ludendorff) Offensive” of March 1918 near the end of World War I. Desperate for victory in the west, they made their last reserve an ambitious, all-out attack, which started well but failed to achieve a decisive victory. In the bargain, Germany lost the war!
In the case of Ukraine, with NATO’s full support, it may not come to total defeat like Germany’s defeat in World War I. But the political settlement that follows is a matter for another day.