How to Break a Russian Offensive
By studying Russian history
Every Ukrainian city is a potential First Battle of Grozny for Russian armor.
The campaign to stop Chechnya breaking away in the winter of 1994-1995 started out as a disaster. The Russian Army was forced to pause and reorganize with new tactics after heavy losses. It was especially embarrassing that their most advanced tanks were sitting ducks in the close urban terrain. Military failure added to the gloom of a humiliated Russia. It was a turning point in the decline of Boris Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin, who sent overwhelming force into Chechnya to install his puppet in 1999.
Ukraine has many more towns and cities than Chechnya, and every Ukrainian city is a potential First Battle of Grozny for Russia. Do the math in your mind, because clearly someone in the Ukrainian defense planning system did. Built-up areas are points of defense that slow each offensive thrust, forcing Russian columns to risk destruction in the attack. This tactic was so effective in the first 72 hours that Russian supply lines actually contracted, paused, and returned at the end of the first week of the war with a new set of tactics that was perfected in another Russian war.
Russia must resort to these tactics because every Ukrainian city they take is turning into a First Battle of Grozny for Russian armor.
Every Russian column on a Ukrainian road is a potential motti.
During their war with Russia, Finnish generals consistently attacked the motorized columns of a bogged-down Red Army from the flanks, cutting up their cohesion and wiping out pockets of resistance. Those pockets were called motti, the Finnish word for a cord of firewood. Finnish infantry was more mobile on skis than Russians were in tanks and trucks. These guerilla tactics gave the Red Army no center of mass to attack. In sectors where geography ruled them out, Finnish units let Russian tanks roam freely, running out of gas, as they swarmed out of their makeshift bunkers on foot to defeat the poorly-trained Russian infantry. Only after a pause, reassessment, and shift in tactics was Stalin able to avoid a humiliating, total defeat.
The cities and towns of Ukraine are connected by paved roads. Their condition has improved considerably since 1992. However, what seem like easy avenues of attack are in fact constricted channels vulnerable to flanking attacks from small forces. Ukrainian counterattacks in the last 72 hours have unmistakable conceptual resemblance to the Finnish defense plan during the Winter War. Someone in Ukraine has clearly studied the ways that small countries fight the Russian juggernaut and put those lessons to good use.
We have indications that some of these mottis are already wiped out.
Territory is not progress. Humanity ought to have learned this in the First World War, but we humans can be dumb beasts at times.
Twitter user @Nrg8000 created some maps which, at least for our purposes, are more revealing than colored patches of “territory” that may give a false picture of what is really happening on the ground. I see no reason to question claims by Ukraine that the Russian tentacles from the northeast have been repulsed all the way back to the borders around Kharkiv. As you can see from all the water courses, the country is a literal swampland in spring, which has come early to the region. This is exactly the sort of terrain where mottis are made.
The land northwest of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is similar. Bear in mind that a massive Russian column was reported just 35 miles from Kyiv five days ago. Progress here has been slow precisely because Russian commanders do not want to get outflanked in a motti. To avoid this fate, they have been forced to advance ninety degrees away from their objective, creating new mottis in the process. Unarmored trucks carrying food, fuel, and ammunition are supremely vulnerable in this environment, and the drivers are civilian contractors unwilling to defend anything when shooting starts. Naturally, Ukrainian attacks have concentrated on them.
“Territory” is not progress. The capture of Kyiv after a massive battle will not make Ukrainians stop fighting. Ukraine will not be defeated as long as they have the will to fight. Russia has failed to break their will, indeed the Ukrainian people are more defiant than ever.
Russia has always relied on its vast depth as a defense against invasion, trading space for time. Alexander I famously ignored Napoleon’s sack of Moscow, biding his time until the sheer size of Russia defeated the emperor of France. ‘General Winter’ and ‘General Mud’ decisively defeated German logistics in the Great Patriotic War. Now the script has been flipped.
Since 1942, the Russian operational formula has been overwhelming numbers, backed by massed artillery, made possible by huge motorized support columns, to brute-force their way through resistance. Defenders perform best against this doctrine by maximizing the damage they inflict on Russian forces. So far, Ukraine has done a stellar job of putting those lessons to work. Russian losses are very high and still climbing.
In time, it may become clear that Ukraine has already passed the crisis point — which, to be clear, does not necessarily mean we are close to the end of this. Russia’s army could break this week, or the next, but then again Russia might go through a few armies before it’s all over. Putin has not ordered a national mobilization yet. Yet. Pundits note that Vladimir Putin has not committed his entire strength to battle (he may not be able to, given his shoddy logistics, but never mind). Ukraine is not committing everything they have, either.
We were told that Ukraine might survive if they could last ten days, and they have, and clearly their plan now is to simply outlast Putin. By giving up space, they may have already bought themselves enough time.