Everything We Know About The Ukraine Counteroffensive That Is Underway Right Now
A Lanchester's square collapse update
Nothing. We know nothing about the Ukrainian counteroffensive right now.
I do not know anything about it and neither do you, dear reader, because we are not privy to the minds of the General Staff in Kyiv. Despite some open source data on Russian dispositions, we have only the slightest inkling of their plans.
A few notes follow on what I expect to happen. These are only educated guesses. They offer no intelligence and Russian commanders will already be fully aware of the dilemma I am about to describe unfolding along the front, or else they are too dumb to gain anything from reading this, anyway.
No Ukrainians will be harmed by the spilling of these electrons.
The first principle to understand is that although the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) are unlikely to collapse all at once in some grand sequence, Ukraine has set the conditions for that to happen, while Russian command choices have helped to create those conditions. Now that the counteroffensive has begun, Ukrainian operations will aim to exploit those conditions and inspire collapse of depleted Russian formations. Success may be local or general.
Russian commanders, on the other hand, will want to prevent a general collapse and stop any local collapse. Put simply, Russia is definitively on the strategic defensive at this point. Wagner could push Ukraine out from the last 30 percent of Bakhmut and declare victory tomorrow and Russia would still be on the strategic defensive everywhere else. Ukraine’s winter defense has been decisive in reducing the manpower surge of Vladimir Putin’s special mobilization to the point that every Russian unit is currently engaged along the front somewhere.
There are apparently no substantial troop reserves to rush into second and third-line fortifications, no matter how carefully prepared those are. To fall back in good order and recover in a second line of defense is a challenging military endeavor all on its own.
Breakthrough is difficult, but doable for Ukraine. Suppose that the ground dries and Ukraine attacks at three points along the line in, say, Zaporizhzhia Oblast next week. Suppose two of those breakthroughs are failures, while the third is a success. Assuming it is backed and exploited by plenty of reserves, simply stopping this one successful mechanized maneuver from cutting all the way to Mariupol would be difficult for Russia to do.
This conservative, simplistic scenario demonstrates the dangers: what if two of the three breakthroughs succeed? What if there are simultaneous breakthroughs elsewhere along the front? This is not a position that any Russian commander wants to be in, but all of them are. To successfully “freeze” the war and prevent total ruin is a low bar, yet it is not clear the RuAF can meet it.
It seems clear that Ukraine has begun their counterstroke, or at least the opening movement of the grand opera. Open source information shows a high attrition rate of Russian electronic warfare and spectrum operations systems from February to April. Old Crows refer to this fact-pattern as “preparation of the spectrum battlefield.” Radars are the main battlefield sensor technology used by RuAF and this has always been a flaw that NATO combined arms doctrine intended to exploit. Of particular note are all the Russian counterbattery radars targeted along the left bank of the Dnipro River in recent weeks. This development has given Ukraine apparent supremacy of artillery fire — and made a crossing possible.
Ukrainian forces apparently landed at Cherson over the weekend. (You can watch purported video of the landings here.) Cherson lies on an island in the Dnipro which may serve as a bridgehead now. Russians reportedly fell back from this position to their second-line defenses. However, with artillery supremacy and sufficient air defense coverage, Ukraine can make this bridgehead into a base from which to strike the Russians in their new locations. If they retreat to third-line defenses, Russians will leave Cherson open to major bridging and logistical operations, supporting further mechanized breakthrough attempts.
Now imagine that Ukraine starts forming a second bridgehead next week, perhaps even a third bridgehead the week after. It does not matter whether Ukraine even intends to cross the Dnipro in force. What matters is that Russians have no choice but to act as if Ukraine will cross the Dnipro in force. It is a realistic threat to which the RuAF must respond, and they can only do so by weakening their forces elsewhere.
So now imagine similar Ukrainian pressure in, say, Luhansk during May. Meanwhile, speculation grows that Zaporizhzhia may see the main effort. Rumors and videos and speculations will redouble. Where will the real attack come from? Everyone will ask but no one will know. The current phase of Ukraine’s offensive is all about setting up this strategic dilemma. Russians must decide now where to defend and where to lose. The trap has already shut. Escaping it will not be easy.
As I explained in this weekend’s subscriber-only post on the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, what seems like a Russian “success” — claiming most of Bakhmut, for example — can often be the culmination of Russian war mobilization potential, as well as the transition point to political troubles in the Russian metropole. Aleksei Brusilov broke Russia with a “limited” victory. Bakhmut, Kreminna, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar may have accomplished the same feat with no Russian victory when all is said and done.
Speculative Kremlinology aside, the results of Ukrainian victory — which I will define right now, setting the mark of success at cutting Putin’s “land bridge” and the water supply to Crimea — would not end at the Kremlin. Yevgeny Prigozhin and the siloviki could freeze the war at this point and it would still be a strategic checkmate. The defense of Crimea would become unsustainable. Worse, there is no industrial base from which to prosecute a “long war” in Ukraine thereafter.
Western sanctions are having this effect now, not just with high-tech items such as microchips and night vision sensors, but more ominously in a shortage of machine tools and high-quality ball bearings. “Bearings are critical to producing any type of moving vehicle,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in a report this month.
“The U.S. government believes that Russia already faces a shortage of this key component, which impacts the production of all vehicles, from tanks to aircraft and even submarines.” Hard choices loom due to western sanctions. Russia must import lower-quality bearings from China or Malaysia and someone must decide whether to use them in tank turrets, or the trains that bring the tanks from the factory to the battlefield.
Here is our second takeaway: for the forseeable future, Russian troops will have a declining quality of equipment. With advanced systems, such as electronic warfare, this is an even bigger problem because they “cannot work continuously. With a restricted lifetime of around 900 to 1,000 hours, each EW system can only be turned on for three to four hours per day, meaning that at least six to eight systems are needed to cover a particular zone for 24 hours.”
Fuller consequences lie over the horizon of this counteroffensive. Consider the M-1 Abrams which, despite delays and hiccups in delivery, is now on schedule to be delivered to Ukraine in small numbers this year. Hardly enough to sustain an armored thrust all on its own, this fleet will grow in 2024 and 2025 and probably beyond, improving the overall quality of Ukraine’s tank fleet.
By comparison, the T-14 Armata, Russia’s great hope for a 21st century main battle tank, is unlikely to ever get built in any quantity, ever. Ukraine is calculating that Russian combat power will continue to degrade in quality and quantity. The counteroffensive has begun and it is force-directed; recovering territory is secondary to destroying the RuAF, so that Moscow needs a new army, one that cannot possibly even be anywhere near as good as this one, which in turn is not as good as the one Ukraine has already destroyed.
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