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What The Hundred Days Of Ukraine Looks Like On Day 69
A progress assessment
When Ukraine first began preparing Zaporizhzhia for their counteroffensive in April, fourteen months into the war, I set forth an idea of what Ukrainian success would look like.
I wrote that the operational goals were to “inspire collapse of depleted Russian formations.” Noting that “there are apparently no substantial troop reserves to rush into second and third-line fortifications, no matter how carefully prepared those are,” I observed that “to fall back in good order and recover in a second line of defense is a challenging military endeavor all on its own.”
Scenes from Urozhaine in the last 48 hours have demonstrated the point. A Russian withdrawal from an exposed forward outpost, in the open, was hit hard by Ukrainian cluster munitions and artillery-laid minefields. Utter disorganization and rout betray supply shortages at that forward post: men who run out of ammo retreat, and Ukraine has made ammunition delivery to that forward post impossible for weeks now.
That ‘slow’ advance southeast from Staromaiorske? The one that was not going fast enough? Turns out that the real speed of ‘fast enough’ is however much time it takes for a Russian army to crack under pressure.
Russian milbloggers have done their best to dress up the disaster at Urozhaine as a heroic tactical stand. However, they admit Zavitne Bazhannya, the next stop on Ukraine’s path to the Azov Sea, is likely to fall this week. It is evident that there are no reserves to deal with the situation.
Moreover, the deeper Ukraine penetrates with secured flanks, the harder it gets for Russia to defend the increased length of front. Further breakthroughs along an axis can precipitate a more general retreat and a widening of the advance. Gradually and then suddenly, like bankruptcy, this force-directed offensive approach works. It is slower than NATO would like to organize, but it really does break Russian armies.
I first suggested the 2023 counteroffensive would look like this in August of last year as a similar strategy unfolded in the Ukrainian Kherson counteroffensive. My certainty redoubled with the first strike on the Kerch Strait Bridge in October. The second strike in July was clearly the beginning of a more systematic and imaginative approach.
This weekend’s strike, reportedly using modernized S-200 missiles reconfigured for surface-to-surface attack, was not exactly what I was expecting, but it fits the general picture I have tried to draw of improvised range weapons to get around the slow western delivery of long-range missiles.
No missile expert, the first strike inspired me to muse half-seriously that Ukraine may have shot down enough Russian hypersonic missiles to glue a few back together and shoot them back at Russia. My expectation was that Ukraine would develop native capabilities, potentially with quiet foreign assistance, to fill the operational gap with drones and other substitutes, and that the campaign on the Kerch Bridge would intensify with time.
Returning to this April, I wrote of “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.” We are seeing the fruits of that patient effort now.
Ukraine has destroyed so many Russian artillery systems that Russian milbloggers complain about their guns being silenced. Last October, I wrote about late Cold War reports that Russia still had many utterly, laughably obsolete 75 mm artillery guns in storage. Forced to draw ever-more ancient artillery from storage, Sergei Shoigu’s Ministry of Defense may yet produce them in battle, even though their design is 125 years old.
There are two major and two minor axes of Ukrainian advance in Zaporizhzhia. However, Ukrainian operations aim to extend Russian resources as much as possible. This April, I asked readers to “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.
While this notional timing was clearly and flippantly optimistic, the basic point stands: Ukraine has increased its presence on the southern bank of the Dnipro. Fear of a Ukrainian crossing likely led someone to pull the trigger and blow up the dam at Nova Kakhovka. This act of sabotage merely delayed Ukrainians by a couple of weeks.
Now the milbloggers are genuinely concerned that Ukraine is ratcheting up the pressure here, too. “Russian commanders face a dilemma of whether to strengthen this area or to redeploy troops in the areas of Ukraine’s main counter-offensive operations, farther to the east” in Zaporizhzhia, the UK Ministry of Defense assesses today.
Further advances at Bakhmut fix Russian strength in Donetsk. Recent cross-border raids into Belgorod Oblast by not-so-mysterious ‘free Russian forces’ and regime security paranoia after the abortive Wagner mutiny have fixed a measure of Russian mobilzation power inside Russia. In the same way, drone attacks in Moscow have required Russian MoD to position air defense equipment in Moscow rather than at the battlefront in Ukraine.
At each point where Ukraine attacks, they advance on a narrow front. Each axis of advance is separated by great distance from the next one over hundreds of miles. Kyiv clearly wants to stretch Russian resources to the breaking point wherever they can.
Against this strategy, Valery Gerasimov — he of the famous speech on “hybrid warfare” doctrine — has adopted a strategy for idiots.
I am not being pejorative there. The strategy itself is sound, but simple, leaving little ability to adapt. It is made for generals who don’t really know much about combined arms warfare. It has the advantage of being a prepared defense but it bleeds out troop strength well beyond the strongest line of fortification.
Consistent with Russian habits of ‘command-push’ logistics and control, there is little room for doubt or error in the orders coming down. Men serve in the front positions to exhaustion. Rather than local commanders requesting what they need, supply is a top-down affair in which Gerasimov’s MoD prioritizes all flows of ammunition and equipment. Soldiers in under-resourced units post Telegram videos to appeal for food and shells.
Menawhile, Gerasimov has attempted to draw off Ukrainian combat power with a spoiling attack in Luhansk. As many as 100,000 Russians with a thousand tanks were said to be attacking behind a curtain of rocket and shell artillery. This gambit is failing, however. Ukraine still has about two-thirds of its generated offensive combat power still in reserve. Using an elastic defense and some reserve artillery, the Ukrainians have so far beaten back every surge in this oblast.
Again, logistics explains the strategy. Suppose that Gerasimov did redeploy tens of thousands of Russians to Zaporizhzhia today; assume that he even had the capacity to transport them. How would he sustain them there?
Between Ukrainian strikes on depots and headquarters, as well as on the bridges into Crimea and from Crimea into Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, it is likely that he lacks the trucking capacity to maintain those extra troops in those oblasts. Attacking in Luhansk is probably easier for him to do because the supply and communication distances are shorter.
“For Russia,” I said in April, “the test is whether or not they can ‘freeze’ the war somehow in a way that leaves Muscovy with a foothold on Ukraine.” Gerasimov had few good options. He chose an easy play in the south and took his risks in the north, gambling that he can hold Crimea if Ukraine breaks through in the south. To his credit, it was an intelligent plan for idiots.
To the credit of Russian troops, they have fought hard until now in what the Institute for the Study of War assesses as a “doctrinally sound” defense of their foothold in the south. Yet there is only so much that pluck and courage can do against an enemy with a better plan and cluster munitions.
Enough about me. Despite all the self-references here, this post is not really about me or my powers of perception. Rather, what I wanted to underline in this post is how these observations remain consistent over time.
I have pointed out more deficiencies in Russian operations than I can recount from memory: air defense weapons that fail in Russian hands while succeeding in Ukrainian custody. Corruption that left vehicles on the lot for years and never maintained properly so that their unmaintained tires gave out on the road to Kyiv. Air forces that somehow cannot seem to sustain flight operations, whether from poor training of pilots and ground crews or inadequare logistics and spare parts. Maps from before the Reagan era were supplied to commanders.
The list could go on and on, starting from Day One in February 2022 until today, the 536th day of Vladimir Putin’s renewed invasion, but it would not kick Russians out of Ukraine. Ukrainians have to be the ones to expel Russia from Ukraine, and we must judge their military success or failure accordingly, without fear or favor.
This analysis does not come from animus against Russia or any ideologized vision of Ukraine. Instead, I have been watching for the historical waypoints, especially those which resonate most with World War I, the conflict most often associated with this one because of its entrenched battlefield.
Comparisons are indeed helpful. The Western Front was roughly 435 miles (700 km) long whereas the total length of front inside Ukraine is over 930 miles (a little under 1,500 km), more than twice as long. Ukrainian MoD has about a million troops to deploy along this frontage, for a maximum density of about 1075 troops per mile of front (667 troops/km).
By contrast, in 1918 the Entente allies went into their final campaign against Germany with no less than four million Americans in uniform, more than three million British, and seven million Frenchmen — altogether, perhaps thirty times the troop density that Ukraine enjoys right now.
Of course, during WWI the Eastern Front had roughly one-third the density of its opposite in France. As I have explained behind a paywall, Russian offensive operations at Bakhmut this spring bore striking resemblance to the Brusilov Offensive, a ‘success’ that broke the Russian Army. Defensive actions in Zaporizhzhia remind me of Russian defensive habits in that war: loading the front line with troops, counterattacking any enemy progress, bleeding out combat potential until they have insufficient reserves. Still, Russians have claimed some success at least in making the Ukrainian counteroffensive ‘slow.’
Western partners have agonized over too many discrete decisions about what to give Ukraine and when. Europeans have delayed sending mine-clearing vehicles, for example, and now some of them are anxious that Ukraine is having to advance at a crawl instead of a run. The counteroffensive is also happening without sufficient air power to make large-scale combined arms operations possible. It is too much to ask for a faster offensive.
Officially, Ukraine began their operations in the south on 6 June. One hundred days from that date is 14 September, the 577th day of the war. The First World War lasted 1,566 days. ‘Progress’ in these circumstances will not resemble a cavalry charge. At that benchmark, Ukraine should be judged by their success at breaking Russian armies, not just the amount of territory recaptured. This is just not going to be the kind of war that you or I or anyone else might want. It will be the best war that both sides can give. My money is on Ukraine having the best and longest fight, and I maintain that history is our best guide.
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