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Slowly, Then All At Once: The Russian Strategy In Zaporizhzhia Is Going Bankrupt
Ukraine creates battlefield liquidity
Pentagon officials assess that Ukraine’s force-directed offensive has penetrated the main minefield and reached the ends of secondary fortification lines around Robotyne. Now holding the highest ground in the region, Ukrainian forces dominate the artillery battle. They are positioned on the flank of Russian trench lines, turning them into avenues of advance rather than obstacles.
Video this morning of the trench line north of Novoprokopivka under preparatory bombardment confirms that Ukraine intends to keep driving south towards the logistical hub at Tokmak by attacking each position from its flank. A swarm of drones is harassing Russians and interdicting movements. Ukrainian reserves are reportedly fully committed to the axis of advance — and Russians at the scene are starting to sound alarms.
Judging by the scale of the artillery preparation, the enemy will soon try to storm and break through to Verbovoye in order to create a threat from the rear to the forces of the RF Armed Forces in Novopokrovka and Novokarlovka.
The problem with static fortifications is that they are static.
How long this will take cannot be known, but according to one Russian ‘milblogger’ this is “a critical moment on the battlefield … Russian forces need to hold their positions for at least another month and a half to try to make gains in another area of the frontline and attempt to shift the battlefield situation.”
But Russians will not get six weeks. No reserves are left in the oblast to defend Tokmak. Instead, units will have to be stripped from elsewhere in the line to reinforce the defenses in Zaporizhzhia. According to at least one Ukrainian military official, this is already happening in Kherson, where a small number of Ukrainians still lurk on the southern bank of the Dnipro. No doubt we will see an increase in river-crossing activity soon.
Yesterday’s foray by Ukrainian marines, landing in Crimea near Sevastopol by helicopter and then extracting by boat just after an S-400 defending the peninsula was destroyed with a Neptune missile, accomplished little in material terms. It was not supposed to. Instead, the emerging campaign of littoral attack on Crimea fixes the Russian troops defending Ukraine’s main strategic objective in place, unable to both guard the beaches and also rush to Tokmak.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south “is still in the early stages — just 10 weeks into what is likely to last at least four more months,” David Petraeus and Frederick Kagan write in the Washington Post. Operations in Zaporizhzhia Oblast are “likely to continue through the fall and into the winter.” Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valeri Zaluzhnyi compares the Battle of Robotyne to the Battle of Kursk, the seven-week long battle that broke the German Wehrmacht in 1943.
In my own coverage, I have used the Hundred Days campaign of 1918 as a reference guide. Ukraine’s counteroffensive officially began on 6 June and will be 100 days old on 14 September. Weeks of contradictory forecasts in western headlines — Ukraine is either stuck in neutral or making steady progress, depending on which Washingtonian gets blind-quoted — have only cited Russian military history as a guide, and selectively.
Agendas and personalities are driving that sort of coverage. Cherry-picking Russian military history with a superficial understanding of its 21st century implications is a good way to look like a bad prophet. Speaking of which: I read Col. Douglas Macgregor’s book, Breaking the Phalanx, in 1997, and then I understood why he was never made a general. What he outlined back then was the mirror image of the Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) that Russia had at the beginning of the war, and that the Russian Army has utterly abandoned as a form of unit organization. He based his theory on a tank design that never made it to production.
Again, the past is a good guide to future performance.
By directing their offensive against the forces in front of them rather than towards arbitrary territorial objectives, Ukraine is playing the hand dealt to them the best way possible. Characteristic of this war, they are using their meager available aviation to support attacks with low-level missions. Kamikaze drones fan out in search of targets. Observation drones detect mines, spot the fall of artillery, drop the occasional explosive on hapless Russians. Without proper air support, the offensive on the Tokmak axis still grinds on, in fact momentum still seems to be gathering.
Meanwhile, the “doctrinally sound defense” put up by Russians so far appears to be reaching an end. Defense is easier on military organizations than offense, especially when it is time to withdraw under the enemy guns. As I said yesterday, the Russian defense plan was made by and for generals who don’t really know much about combined arms warfare. It has the advantage of being a prepared defense, but in execution it bleeds out troop strength well beyond the strongest line of fortification. This reflects the fact that the man who made the plan is now forcibly retired.
None of this guarantees that Ukraine will succeed in reaching Tokmak in the next 20 days, of course. Even if they raise the blue and gold flag over Tokmak next week, there will still be a whole chorus of Macgregors singing their frog-song of inevitable Russian victory.
The irony is that Russians themselves are the ones doomcasting now. Telegrammers are still posting brutal accounts of fighting in Robotyne a day after Ukrainians observably owned it because they are not reporting the defeat so much as cushioning its impact. The mood of their posts is gloomy. They expect things to keep going literally south. History suggests that the Macgregors will be the very last ones of all to pick up on what is happening.
There is no special secret Russian reserve army standing by, either. I keep encountering this wishful talking point from Russophiles and their tone strikes me as the same one Germans used in Hitler’s bunker while they fantasized about a secret plan to save Berlin. The most famous scene in Downfall, the German language film about those final days of the Nazi order, depicts Bruno Ganz’s Adolf going through the stages of grief to reach acceptance; a morose child, he blames his generals.
Vladimir Solovyov, the hamfisted Russian TV host, was very upset this week to learn that his German-made car will no longer get software updates, nor will he be able to replace his key fob. The ruble has crashed and the Russian central bank is out of ways to stop inflation. Export income has declined. Just as the counteroffensive was deemed too slow and a failure too soon, so too the sanctions have been deemed insufficient and a failure, too soon. Here again, history is a guide, and specifically the First World War, for it took the British Foreign Office nearly three years to really make their economic blockade of the Central Powers effective.
Putin has already fired all his fighting generals; he cannot blame them for defeat. An artillery strike on the Russian headquarters at Tokmak yesterday heralds more hits to command and control centers. It is extremely dangerous to be a general in the Russian Army, especially a competent, capable one. Soon enough the Russian forces in Zaporizhzhia may find their own way to acceptance and leave their bunkers, for there is no one left to order them around.
Strategic bankruptcy, like financial bankruptcy, accumulates little by little until it becomes too big to ignore. That historical lesson has been lost on many.
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